The few proud volleyball fanatics that mulled around Cliff Kean Arena Saturday night expected a No. 18 Michigan victory over an unranked Wisconsin team for the price of their admission. They were desperate for a win after No. 14 Minnesota squeaked by the Wolverines the night before, with the win in five sets.

Instead, what they got was an inexplicable barrage of unfortunate events that could only be described as the implosion of the women’s volleyball team.

There was no hope hanging in the desolate hallway outside the team room, just an overwhelming air of frustration and confusion. The team that didn’t know how to lose in the preseason had just lost back-to-back home Big Ten matches. One loss to the Golden Gophers in five sets, the other to the Badgers in four.

For once, even Michigan coach Mark Rosen didn’t have an explanation for his team’s performance.

“This one is extremely frustrating because we didn’t play anywhere close to our capability,” Rosen said after Saturday’s match. “Right now, we’re going to have to dig pretty deep to figure out why we are executing so poorly. I feel our poor execution is more deeply rooted than just not having skill. Something is inhibiting us from being able to go about our business and play our game, and we have to get to the bottom of it immediately.”

The Wolverines were hopeful coming into the weekend. Senior outside hitter Alex Hunt rejoined the lineup after being sidelined by a shoulder injury last weekend. The team was projected to match up well against a very similar Golden Gopher squad and Wisconsin was supposed to be an easy put-away.

Some say that two out of three isn’t bad — in this case, it was devastating.

The Badgers came out guns blazing in the first two sets on both sides of the net. They effectively held Michigan’s leading scorer, sophomore outside hitter Lexi Erwin, to just two kills — her lowest total in the last three weeks.

In the second set, Rosen substituted sophomore outside hitter Molly Toon for Erwin to inspire more offensive production. While Toon ended up contributing five kills to the comeback effort, the margin was too great and the Badgers won the set, 25-20.

Michigan looked like it did in the preseason in the third set — low errors, spread offense, and solid defense. The Wolverines won the set 25-18, and appeared to be mounting a serious comeback.

But in the fourth set they fell apart. Their error totals were through the roof, they had a negative attack percentage and it was apparent that the spark that won them the third set had fizzled out. The last kill was a Wisconsin front-row spike delivered right atop Hunt’s head.

Watching the All-American sprawl out on the floor in hopes of digging the final ball, only to come up short, was a heart-wrenchingly perfect picture of the game. It conveyed every bit of frustration and confusion that Michigan was feeling in a way that words could never express.

Back in the desolate hallway outside the team room, the air was heavy with sadness and self-doubt. Rosen emerged with a look on his face that has not been seen this season — absolute bewilderment.

This is not where he wanted to be. The Wolverines are set to play the last remaining undefeated team in the country, No. 1 Illinois, in two days. Rosen often talks about positive momentum as the ultimate key to winning games. It appears now that it will be even more of an uphill battle without it.

“Momentum? We don’t have any,” Rosen said. “We’re going to have to create some. We have to somehow get to the root of the issue and figure out what has been inhibiting our performance because we certainly did not perform well tonight, and that has to change. I’m not looking as much at Illinois as much as I’m looking at Michigan. Illinois will not matter much if we can’t fix Michigan.”

Despite the doom and gloom, there is a silver lining. Michigan suffered a similarly devastating loss last year to Northwestern. The game against the Wildcats is still fresh in the minds of the returning squad and is a symbol of all the things they want to correct before they end their careers with the Wolverines. The silver lining is that even with that loss, Michigan turned the season around and appeared in the NCAA Tournament.

When a team falls, it is an opportunity to learn how to pick itself back up and keep going. Rosen’s disappointment only mirrors how confident he is in Michigan’s capability to do exactly that.

“We are better than we were today,” Rosen said. “We can execute far better than we did today. I believe this team needs to figure out who they are and what they want. We are being pressured right now by some great teams and we just need to figure out how to respond better than we have been.”

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