The Michigan volleyball team was coming off two straight losses and consistently looking underwhelming in Big Ten play. Now with longtime coach Mark Rosen taking a temporary leave of absence for health-related reasons — and interim head coach Leisa Rosen stepping in — the Wolverines desperately could use a win Friday night against Northwestern.
From the beginning of Big Ten play Michigan has struggled to win sets. Mark Rosen decided to switch his offense to a 6-2 rotation — emphasizing blocking and size on the front line — hoping to compete with strong conference opponents and remedy its inability to close sets.
To date, the change has done little to turn the Wolverines’ season around. Preceding the matchup with the Wildcats, they had lost six of their last seven matches, only managing to beat Michigan State — a team that is tied for last place in the Big Ten — in that span.
Despite holding a 22-19 lead late into the first set, Michigan collapsed and allowed Northwestern to go ahead early. The collapse felt familiar, as the inability to close out sets has plagued the Wolverines throughout the season.
“Certainly nerves start to play into that,” Leisa Rosen said.
The nine errors Michigan committed during the first set reflected its disorganized play and presented little optimism for the rest of the match — and the rest of the season.
Already behind, a loss for a team that was sinking to the bottom of the conference, still adjusting to a new offensive system and without its head coach would hardly be surprising.
Instead, Michigan won three consecutive sets to take the match from the Wildcats. The team won points late in those sets and dominated in the facets emphasized by the offensive change.
“We have to find the right pieces and continue to put them in the right spots,” Leisa Rosen said. “We’re getting closer and closer to that.”
A key change has been the emergence of freshman middle blocker Serena Nyambio, as her minutes continue to grow within the new rotation. Nyambio and senior middle blocker Jess Robinson made blocking a strength for the Wolverines on Friday night, they led the team with five and six blocks each, respectively.
“I definitely saw a lot of communication and growth within our blocking system,” Robinson said. “As a new system, it’s really worked.”
While the blocking system and personnel has changed, the presence of junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik has been a constant. Despite the improved blocking alleviating pressure off of Mruzik to provide the majority of the team’s kills, she was still able to deliver consistent kills throughout the match. In match point she laid down her team high 16th kill and finished off the match.
Michigan’s midseason change had finally translated into a meaningful win. The struggling Wolverines quelled the errors that had been holding them back in recent losses. Michigan checked all the boxes — seeing improvement in a new rotation, closing late in sets and being able to do such without its coach.
While the Wolverines needed this win to restore any hope of turning their season around, the expectation was to beat Northwestern. Just over a month ago the Wolverines beat the Wildcats 3-1 — running their old 5-1 offensive rotation.
The win over Northwestern saw Michigan overcome its recent struggles and take advantage of its new rotation. However, it is yet to be seen whether Friday’s success can be repeated against stronger opponents as the season winds down.