In the fourth set of Saturday’s match against Illinois, the Michigan volleyball team was were down 16-10. A cross-court kill, courtesy of sophomore middle blocker Jen Cross, put senior outside hitter Alex Hunt on the end line. Hunt cracked the ball like the end of a bullwhip. It wasn’t until two seconds after she buried the ball into the Fighting Illini’s side of the hardwood that the crowd reached its riotous capacity.
The cheers grew even louder when she did it again on the next play.
When Hunt aced it a third time, the press box was shaking from all the jumping up and down. The scoreboard read 16-14 — it was the closest the Wolverines would get to taking down the Fighting Illini.
In spite of the valiant comeback effort, the fourth set concluded with a No. 7 Illinois victory over No. 23 Michigan, 25-21. The Wolverines had won the first set 25-22, but couldn’t maintain their early edge over the Fighting Illini.
“I liked how our team played (Saturday night),” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “I thought we played with great effort. We can’t control that they are big or physical, or that they’re playing great defense because of the big block they can throw around. Tonight they beat us, we certainly didn’t beat ourselves.”
Once the top-ranked team in the country, the Fighting Illini (14-4 Big Ten, 25-4 overall) were eventually dethroned by a handful of conference losses — but the loss to Michigan State on Friday night undoubtedly gave them a chip on their already massive shoulders. Its 12 blocks compared to Michigan’s two was enough of an indicator that Illinois was not about to lose twice in the Great Lake State.
When Rosen refers to Michigan beating itself, it’s usually through attack errors. Last week, when the team swept No. 16 Minnesota, the Wolverines (7-11 Big Ten, 19-11 overall) limited themselves to just eight attack errors in the match. But this Friday, they racked up 35 against Northwestern. The efforts of sophomore outside hitter Lexi Erwin and redshirt junior outside hitter Claire McElheny and their 16 kills apiece saved the match for the Wolverines in five sets.
Against Illinois, Michigan notched 25 errors.
“The past couple of weeks, we’ve been focused on not getting so many errors,” McElheny said. “In a worst case scenario we’ve been working on getting a zero — not a kill, not an error. Tonight they were throwing up some big blocks. I thought everyone went aggressive and our coverage was there, but sometimes things just don’t go your way.”
Added Cross: “We’ve been struggling to close out games, we haven’t been doing that so well. We were playing really hard, but we couldn’t control them. They have some really big girls and that caused some problems for us.
“(Illinois) is not a team we match up with well, but we played our game, and that’s all we can hope from ourselves.”
Though the Wolverines lost, they did play to the strengths that have gotten them this far. This was one of the few games this season that Michigan spread its offense effectively. It nailed its serves as well as it did during the its undefeated preseason.
The high score was split four ways among Cross, Erwin, sophomore outside hitter Molly Toon and senior middle blocker Courtney Fletcher, who each earned 11 kills. And the Wolverines served up 10 aces to the Fighting Illini’s five.
Though Michigan struggled to match up against the physicality of Illinois, Rosen is confident in his team’s ability to compete on the national stage if it can continue to perform to its strengths and find ways to adapt when the going gets tall.
“If we get to the NCAA Tournament — which I think we have a good chance of doing — we are going to run up against big, physical teams like (Illinois),” Rosen said. “If we hope to win then we are going to have to work on some things, namely — controlling the ball more, getting in system, finding holes in those big blocks and improving our blocking as well.”