In the fourth set of Saturday’s match against No. 6 Stanford, in the heart of Palo Alto, Calif., redshirt junior outside hitter Claire McElheny crushed a set down the right side line for match point, 24-19.
On the next play senior middle blocker Courtney Fletcher stepped back to set, and put the ball square into the net. Stanford’s serve.
Reluctant to let the Michigan women’s volleyball season end in Cardinal country, senior outside hitter Alex Hunt stepped back to begin her approach. In three quick, imperceptible steps she was in the air, and a loud crack reverberated through Maples Pavilion — Michigan was on their way to the Sweet 16.
No. 22 Michigan battled back from a first-set defeat, upsetting Stanford in four sets (20-25, 25-17, 25-18, 25-20).
Michigan entered the NCAA Tournament following a home loss to Ohio State on senior night. The frustrations were enough to carry the team through the first round of the tournament against Baylor on Friday night. The Wolverines defeated the Bears in four sets.
Though Michigan had just a few hours to prepare for Stanford, Michigan coach Mark Rosen felt confident in his team’s ability to match up against the top-10 team.
“(Stanford’s) style of play is very similar to teams we’ve matched up well against so far this year, like Minnesota and Michigan State in the second half of the season.” Rosen said. “We figured out they had some ball control issues, so we decided to go after their serve-receive and get them in trouble — and that’s exactly what we were able to do.”
Michigan’s special focus on the serve-receive resulted in 12 service aces, five of which came from Dannemiller. The shock to Stanford’s system proved too great. The Cardinal was unable to put anything together after losing the second set.
“After watching the game (Stanford) played against Sacred Heart, we knew that if we jumped on them, they would crumble,” Hunt said. “And they did. We really got rolling in the second set and got some momentum once we started to take advantage of their weak serve-receive game. We served them off the court.”
Rosen put the game plan together, but he is convinced the win would not have been possible without the 18-kill performance by McElheny.
“The defining factor tonight was Claire,” Rosen said. “She carried the team. Claire was the fire tonight. When she got kills, she got them when we really needed them. It really elevated the team. They were excited by the way she played.”
Added Hunt: “(Claire’s) doing a great job. It’s great to have someone on the opposite pin who I know is going to put the ball down. I love having her at the net with me to balance out our strong front row.”
Regardless of scouting, stats, and the X’s and O’s, the win highlighted Michigan’s unwillingness to part with its senior class. For this team, 34 games just isn’t enough. It’s clear that they will do everything they can to make the season last as long as possible.
“I came in with the senior class, they are some of my best friends,” McElheny said. “I want to stay with them, and this team for as long as possible. We’ve had some ups and downs, we’ve overcome some adversity this season and we’ve come through all of it together. I just want to make this last as long as I can.”