DAYTON, Ohio — Tournament underdog Pepperdine rocked University of Dayton’s Frericks Arena this weekend with their stellar performance. Michigan was the only one to rock the Waves back.
The 20th-ranked Wolverines (9-0) swept both No. 24 Florida State (6-4) on Friday and No. 23 Dayton (4-5) on Saturday in three sets. Each match had its share of adversity, unbelievable plays and monster kills, but the most exciting match-up was the least anticipated game of the weekend.
Michigan battled an underrated Pepperdine through five sets on Saturday morning to win, 3-2. And three of the five sets against the Waves (6-4) went into overtime.
Immediately, in the first set, Pepperdine came out and pummeled the ball into the Wolverine’s front court. The smack reverberated throughout the gym, heightened by the stunned silence of the Michigan fans. The very next play senior outside hitter Alex Hunt cracked the ball right through the hands of the 6’4 Wave blocker for the kill. From then on, it was clear that it was going to be that kind of game. Michigan had four players score in the double digits.
Hunt led the charge with 21 kills. Sophomore middle blocker Jennifer Cross had 12 kills, Fletcher had 11 kills and redshirt junior Claire McElheny tallied a career-high 19 kills.
“I didn’t know why their blockers weren’t going with me,” McElheny said. “It was working, so I told (freshman setter) Lexi (Dannemiller), ‘Just keep setting me,’ and it worked. When it works, it works.”
This game was not only the first time the Wolverines went into five sets, it was the only time this season that they lost their first set. The score was 32-30. Despite the disheartening first set loss, Michigan coach Mark Rosen and the team rallied together for a strong second set, winning 25-16. After that, much like the game of volleyball, it was a great deal of back and forth.
When times got tough, Michigan turned to Hunt. Whether she was “putting it down hard in the front court,” or “acing from the back line,” she became the pulse of the team. Pepperdine’s strongest assets were its outside hitters and blockers, and yet somehow Hunt found a way to lead her team around them.
“Hitting around the block is something I’ve been struggling with since the beginning of the season,” Hunt said. “This game was one of the first times I felt like myself again. It was a great feeling.”
Rosen attributed the win to the spread offense, his team’s grittiness, and its ability to stay composed under extreme adversity — all things that are becoming synonymous with this Michigan squad. This game, however, he also highlighted his back row defense — namely the efforts of senior libero and defensive specialist Sloane Donhoff, who earned 25 digs against the Waves.
Donhoff created what Rosen called the biggest play of the game. She and Hunt chased a long ball to the back right corner. Donhoff managed to pass it back over the net from out of bounds. Within less than a second, Pepperdine attempted the spike to the hole left by Donhoff, but the aptly named defensive specialist sprinted back, dove on the floor and dug it up to Dannemiller, who set it to senior middle blocker Courtney Fletcher for the kill.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is winning the dirty points,” Donhoff said. “I think our defense really showed that tonight. There were plays where we could have easily given up, but we were determined to fight and take it all one at a time.”
In five-set games like these, which Michigan will surely play against its strong Big Ten competitors, Rosen talked about riding that fine line between composure and chaos when a game turns into a war-zone.
“In sports, that’s a very fine line,” Rosen said. “What you saw in that first set was anxiety. We sat back, we were pulling the ball off the net and all of a sudden we got in one-option offenses and we became tentative. By the fifth set, we were up, constantly fighting back, and we never gave up that break point. That was composure.
“As a coach, I look at this and say we managed to get better in an hour and a half. That’s a great take-away after a game like this.”