On the set point of home games, the Michigan volleyball tradition is for the fans to stand up and clap repeatedly in hopes of the Michigan volleyball team securing the set. On Saturday night, the fans in Cliff Keen Arena stood up an extra couple of times at the end of the first set, as the Wolverines rallied a few points past 25 with Illinois. Despite the home fans’ support, the Fighting Illini (13-13 overall, 8-8 Big Ten) took down the Wolverines (15-11, 6-10) the first set, as well as the match, 3-1.
“Tonight, something we learned throughout the match was that when we’re not in perfect situations we need to stay aggressive and that was pretty apparent in the first set,” junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik said. “We felt like we were kind of on their heels and just kind of bombing when they were out of system and that was something that we needed to change.”
In a tug-of-war first set, Michigan traded points back and forth with Illinois all the way until set point, 24-23. Down one to the Fighting Illini, the Wolverines were dialed in and hopeful to extend their chances at taking the set. With a solid block from freshman right side Serena Nyambio and sophomore middle blocker Jacque Boney, they were able to tie the score at 24 apiece with the Fighting Illini. They continued to fight back and forth a few more rallies, but an ace by the Fighting Illini forced an end to the set, 29-27.
“They were just serving BBs, coming after us,” Michigan interim coach Leisa Rosen said. “We knew that Illinois was one of the toughest serving teams in the Big Ten, that’s what they do, they also do a very good job staying aggressive.”
In the second set, Illinois came out firing on all cylinders with the same aggressive serves and ball placement. The Illini recorded three aces in the first half of the set, troubling Michigan’s defense, leaving it down 10-6. The Wolverines responded promptly with an attack and solo block from senior middle blocker Jess Robinson to close the score gap. But Illinois crafted a quick response with powerful kills and led a 5-0 scoring run against Michigan, to take the lead 23-19. Despite a kill from junior outside hitter Kendall Murray to counter the Illini, they closed out the set, 25-20.
“Our passers did a good job not a great job, they know that, it’s something that we work on all the time, it’s always going to be the serve and pass game,” Rosen said. “If you can pass and keep your team in system, we are very very efficient, if we can serve and get the other team out of system, then we’re usually pretty efficient on defense.”
In their last-chance set, the Wolverines lagged four points early in the set, but were able to regain momentum. They led a six-point run against the Illini powered by impressive kills from Mruzik, who recorded a season high of 22 kills overall. Illinois followed suit with a five-point run but were met with the force of Mruzik and two aces by senior setter Scottee Johnson, who launched Michigan towards a victorious third set, 25-22.
Entering the fourth set, the Wolverines looked to extend their comeback. They went back and forth with the Illini in the first half of the set. Illinois, promptly weaponized their powerful serve, logging one third of their total aces in the last match. Following a few kills from the Fighting Illini, Michigan was unable to recover, dropping the fourth and final set, 25-19.
“The season is becoming smaller,” Rosen said. “We need to be in those pressure situations in order to either advance to those NCAA tournaments. If you do, then it’s one and done, so I think being inside of the pressure is really good.”
With the absence of Michigan coach Mark Rosen and the pressures from the Big Ten competition, the Wolverines need to ensure they can balance the two to ensure success in the final stretch of the season.