Though the term conductor is normally used in a musical context, there is no better role to describe freshman setter Mackenzi Welsh after her performance in a five-set loss to No. 1 Wisconsin. No. 18 Michigan dropped the last set 15-13, falling just short of an upset against the Badgers.
All night in front of a sold-out crowd at Cliff Keen Arena, the cheers were deafening. But when Welsh came out of the huddle for the fifth and final set and tossed the ball up, the only thing deafening was the silence as Mackenzi Welsh connected the serve. Hitting the back-left corner, the serve sailed past an unaware defender for an ace.
Consistently, Welsh assisted her teammates to control the volume and momentum of the game — a performance that eventually garnered Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. Returning to the court after intermission down two sets against the top-ranked team in the nation was not easy, but Welsh stayed aggressive.
“That might be a time when you get a little passive, and that wasn’t going to be the recipe for success.” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen.
With that in mind, Welsh helped set up her teammates to score, helping the Wolverines earn a 10-3 lead in the third set and maintain the upper hand throughout the set.
Welsh conducted the crowd with her performance as the Wolverines took set three and four. A kill by Welsh gave Michigan a 22-17 lead. Claps. A set from Welsh for a kill by Mahlke made it 23-17. Shouts. A serve from Welsh led to blocks from Katherine Mahlke and Abby Cole for a 24-17 lead. Cheers. Again, a serve from Welsh leading to a block for Cole on the top right corner of the court, 25-17. Screams.
In a game where momentum means everything, the tempo and pace of an offense can be the difference-maker. When Welsh conducted the offense, she avoided making it one-dimensional with her wide court vision in order to spot holes in the opposing formations and better matchups between her teammates and opposing blockers, such as placing Abby Cole on Wisconsin’s Haleigh Nelson and Kriskova, both shorter players. Her court awareness allowed her to make the smartest plays, from quick backsets to isolation plays for easy scores.
“We have a really balanced offense, so it’s easy to set any of them,” Welsh said.
In addition to oscillating between her types of assists, she also added herself to Michigan’s offensive threat. Notching a career-high six kills, she tallied two in a row to expand the lead in the third set to 22-17.
In addition to a career high in kills with an attack percentage of .750, Welsh also gained her fifth career assist-dig double-double. She achieved 49 assists and 11 digs in five sets as well as a service ace. One of the most important aspects of the match, though, was Welsh’s performance compared to the opposing setter. Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini was a first-team All-American, Big Ten Setter of the Year in 2015, and arguably the No. 1 setter in the nation. But on Saturday, all eyes were on Welsh.
“I know (Welsh) was looking at that going, ‘Hey, I wanna go one on one against her’,” Rosen said. “They came from the same club.”
Welsh viewed this as an opportunity to grow. She played her best against the No. 1 setter and ended up earning her second Big Ten Freshman of Week award. Young, talented and improving, Welsh continues to conduct the court as she steadily grows into a star player.