As the regular season came to a close, the Michigan women’s volleyball (22-9 overall, 11-9 Big Ten) managed to provide a bittersweet send-off for its senior players with a win over Michigan State (17-16, 5-15) at Crisler Center on Saturday night.
Like true rivals, the Wolverines and the Spartans were neck-and-neck throughout the first set, with the biggest deficit being just three points. By the time it was 23-23, it was anybody’s game. But two consecutive attacks errors by the Wolverines allowed Michigan State to edge out Michigan, 25-23, to take the first set.
“I think we came out pretty stale in the first set,” said junior setter Mackenzi Welsh.
Knowing this was their last game at Crisler, and possibly even at home depending on their seeding at Sunday’s NCAA selection, the Wolverines sought to turn the night around, digging, diving and getting the invested crowd on its feet.
On both sides though, the pressure was obvious, as highlight-worthy plays were followed by nervous fumbles and uncontrolled ball-handling. Star hitters for either team were consistently shut down by stellar blocking defense that put the players’ height to good use.
Rattled over losing the first set to a team they swept just a week earlier, Michigan played the first few points of the second set like a deer in the headlights, with slow reactions and miscommunication putting a kink in the well-oiled machine.
“What scared us was how we came out in the second set,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “I thought we just came out a little tentative, a little on our heels, and it looked like we were just second-guessing ourselves a little bit.”
Even the veterans were off their game. Consequently, Rosen called a timeout after senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt gave up a point on a ball-handling error.
A “Go green, go white” cheer broke out, calling attention to the decent amount of Spartan fans in the audience, and the mood shifted as Michigan State gained its largest lead of the game, 11-7.
Freshman outside hitter Paige Jones stepped up and emerged as the game’s equalizer, showcasing her versatility as a hitter and blocker. A forced Spartan timeout following one of her deafening spikes allowed the Wolverines to come from behind and take the lead of the set, 19-18.
Apparently Michigan State coach Cathy George gave the team the pep-talk it needed, because the Spartans came back to tie the score at a nail-biting 24-24.
Ultimately, Spartan sophomore Alyssa Chronowski hit the ball out of bounds to hand Michigan the second set, 27-25, leveling the match to one set each.
Michigan State took the lead again early in the third set, but it was Skjodt’s 11th double-double of the season that underscored Michigan’s overall dominance. An ace service from Welsh seemed to signal the end was nigh.
Nevertheless, the Spartans fought tooth and nail and the Wolverines took the third set by another two-point margin, 25-23.
Despite the closeness of the match, the mood lightened as senior night festivities took place. Senior llibero Jenna Lerg was voted “Most likely to be President” by her teammates and Michigan danced to the Macarena, waiting for the fourth set to commence.
This show of camaraderie reminded the crowd that senior night not only means the team will graduate three star players in Skjodt, Lerg, and setter Maddy Abbott, but also three friends and fellow Wolverines who have made a lasting impact on their younger teammates.
“I hate senior nights,” Rosen said about the disappointment of losing his players. “You can see their teammates’ reaction, how much this team, those players, mean to the whole team.”
He acknowledges that while Skjodt, Lerg, and Abbott will be moving on, their impact on the younger team members will remain.
“Their legacy is going to be strong,” Rosen said, “but hopefully the younger players were paying attention to how they led, how they carried themselves, and we hope they set a great example for the future.”
As the fourth set culminated in match point, a final Spartan serve was fielded by Skjodt, set by Welsh and then nailed down into the back corner by Jones. And just like that, from senior to freshman, the torch had been passed.