The No. 20 Michigan women’s volleyball team set a goal for itself after the 25-14 loss in the first set to No. 1 Illinois. It wanted to put five more points on the board.
The Wolverines tacked on those five more points but ended up losing the set, 25-19. In the locker room they joked about how they should have set their sights a little higher — so they came out and won the third, 25-21.
Going into the fourth set, they decided to do it again. They were neck-and-neck the whole way to 20 points, but their momentum could only carry them so far. Michigan lost the final set 25-20.
On Wednesday night, the Fighting Illini (7-0 Big Ten, 18-0 Overall) added the Wolverines (2-5 Big Ten, 14-5 Overall) to the long list of teams left in their undefeated wake. And the loss was the fourth straight for Michigan in its current Big Ten slump.
The Wolverines lost the first two sets due to a combination of errors and an inability to mount a serious offensive run. Senior outside hitter Alex Hunt, the hard-hitting lefty, was having some success going around Illinois’s front line down the side, but it wasn’t enough to pull out a win.
One set away from being swept by Illinois, Michigan looked to its middle blockers, senior Courtney Fletcher and sophomore Jennifer Cross, for some momentum — they delivered in spades.
“We really wanted to establish our middles in the third set,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “Jen and Fletch were doing a great job of getting up quick and swinging fast, and that’s what we needed them to do. Once our middles got going, then that opened up opportunities for (redshirt junior outside hitter) Claire (McElheny) and I thought that changed the game.”
The Wolverines rode the momentum from the third set into the beginning of the fourth, leading Illinois 9-5 at one point. The Fighting Illini eventually tied the set at 13 points apiece, and Michigan kept the margin within two until the very end. But the Wolverines were never able to retake the lead.
The Wolverines were charged with the task of toppling the top team in the country on the road after a surprise loss at home to an unranked Wisconsin team last weekend. Winning a set over Illinois could be considered a step forward.
While Rosen sees the game only in terms of winning and losing, he is admittedly proud of his team’s performance, despite the fact that he knows it will need to improve a great deal in order to fight out of this slump.
“I think we took some pretty big steps from three days ago to now,” Rosen said. “They worked really hard in practice and tonight’s match. But we are in the zero sum business, you either win or you lose. There is no consolation. What we need to do is improve the things we’re working on enough to come out with the win, which is what we’re here to do. That’s what keeps us fighting.”