In its first home NCAA Tournament match since 2009, the Michigan volleyball team put its offensive balance on full display.
Fifth-year senior outside hitter Kelly Murphy or junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt would rise up from the left side of the court to power a shot past American’s front line. Or senior middle blocker Abby Cole or junior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright would elevate and thunder a kill down the middle. Anything the 12th-ranked Wolverines tried offensively worked against the overmatched Eagles on Thursday night.
The first time these two teams met — in September at the Panther Invitational in Pittsburgh — Michigan swept American, 3-0, recording its most kills of the season for a three-set match with 52. They nearly equaled that total Thursday night, registering 51 kills to the tune of a .406 kill percentage.
“That’s a lot of earned points,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “You’re going to get a certain number of points from your opponent making mistakes or from errors, or you’re going to get points from blocking or serving aces. But 51 kills in a three-set match is a big number. That just tells me how smooth we’re playing on offense.”
It was that way from the beginning of the game. Cole, a unanimous All-Big Ten selection and the Wolverines’ leader in kills per set at 3.16, didn’t add to the kill total until the Wolverines were up 20-8 in the opening set. Instead, it was Murphy, Kieffer-Wright and Skjodt who carried most of the responsibility on offense. But a player of Cole’s caliber was never going to stay silent for long.
“She was playing fine, we just didn’t set her much,” Rosen said. “Had we set her, she’d have been fine. We were creating some other stuff that then opened her up for later.”
It was clear that the third set was Cole’s turn to dominate, and she did just that. She opened the set with a kill and tallied another four points in close succession midway through the set to help the Wolverines pull away for good.
Overall, Michigan saw three players with double-figure kills – Cole, Kieffer-Wright and Murphy with 13, 10 and 10, respectively, with Skjodt chipping in with eight of her own. All told, it was one of their most well-rounded attacking efforts of the season.
“We did a great job with rhythm and tempo,” Murphy said. “All the hitters did a great job tonight.”
While American came in with just two players averaging at least two kills per set, five such players — Cole, Kieffer-Wright, junior outside hitter Adeja Lambert, Murphy and Skjodt — can be found on Michigan’s roster. The contrast between the two teams in this regard was evident Thursday night in Crisler Center. When the Wolverines managed to limit the production of sophomore Aleksandra Kazala, who came in averaging 4.37 kills per set, the Eagles didn’t have anywhere else to turn.
Judging by Thursday night’s performance, as well as the entire season, the multitude of attacking options appears to be one of the Wolverines’ greatest strengths, and they hope that it can lead them on a special run through the tournament.