Drama isn’t the first word that comes to mind when envisioning a sweep, but Friday was an exception for the Michigan volleyball team.
The Wolverines took three consecutive sets against Iowa by scores of 25-17, 25-15 and 26-24, but finishing off the sweep required a dramatic, gritty comeback in the final frame. Despite taking an early lead, they began to fade. Two consecutive attack errors and a bad set allowed the Hawkeyes to tie the set at 13, and they took the lead shortly thereafter.
“We couldn’t seem to get the runs we were getting early in the match,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen.
But the anatomy of a comeback is familiar to the Wolverines; they even incorporate it into their practices. Rosen will pull from a deck of cards, each with a different score, and the players have to treat it like a real game and battle back.
“(We) create different scenarios where you’re either down by one or down by two with a certain amount of minutes to play,” Rosen said, “so you have to be urgent.”
That urgency showed. In one memorable play, a bad bump sent the ball sailing toward the bleachers, but junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt dove and delivered it back to her teammates. Skjodt, senior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright and senior outside hitter Adeja Lambert all had multiple kills. Sophomore setter MacKenzi Welsh picked up nine assists, including one on the Kieffer-Wright kill that tied the set.
With the score tied at 24 and two points needed to win the set for either side, Skjodt hit the ball. It soared over the net, bouncing at the end of Iowa’s side of the court. No players were nearby. The referee held up the out-of-bounds flag and the point went to Iowa. It seemed like a momentum-killer.
But Skjodt saw something that no one else did, and Michigan decided to challenge.
“I was pretty sure I got the touch, but I don’t know that anyone else thought I did,” Skjodt said. “I had confidence in myself but I mean, I wasn’t really feeling that anyone else thought so.”
She was right. Even Rosen believed the ball had gone out of bounds.
“I thought we were calling the challenge just to get a quasi-timeout,” he said. “We were talking about the play we were going to run … because we thought we were going to lose it.”
What Skjodt saw ended up being the difference-maker. No sooner had the referee announced that the call had been reversed than the crowd exploded with a fervor usually reserved for the larger sports. Instead of being a set point for Iowa, it was set point for Michigan.
The Wolverines just needed one more point, and all the momentum was in their favor. Sure enough, on the very next play, Kieffer-Wright and Welsh blocked a Hawkeye attack. The ball dropped onto Iowa’s side of the court and the Wolverines sealed the sweep — their first in conference play all season.
The late comeback energized the team and crowd alike and proved that despite its fair share of struggles this season, Michigan won’t go down without a fight.
“Competing is a skill, just like passing’s a skill or serving’s a skill. It’s an intangible skill,” Rosen said. “You can’t put a finger on it, but you can see when someone’s competing well. I thought tonight we competed really well.”