The final two points that clinched the Michigan volleyball team’s straight-set win against Eastern Michigan were a pair of dramatic rallies that featured players scrambling all over the court.
But above all the chaos, both points showcased eye-catching block attempts and ended with Jess Robinson kills — a fitting close to a Friday matinee that brought the Wolverines’ middles to the spotlight.
Robinson, Michigan’s junior middle blocker, had an impact that extended beyond the points that ended it. She led both teams with 12.5 points, 11 kills and three blocks, while also contributing 18 attacks. It was the constant pressure she brought beyond those numbers, however, that defined her role in this game.
“We’ve definitely been spending a lot of practice time working on blocking and working on just being really physical and aggressive at the net, making it a lot harder for teams to put a ball down,” Robinson said. “I think that really showed today.”
For the Wolverines, this week of practice and hosting this weekend’s Michigan Invitational served as a recalibration following a hard-fought loss to undefeated North Carolina. It is with this context in mind that Michigan coach Mark Rosen clarifies Friday’s middle blocking as not just a breakout performance, but a tactical emphasis.
“One of the things we identified the last couple weeks was that we were too out-of-bounds for our offense because we weren’t using our (middle blockers) enough,” Rosen said. “And we have middles who can score. Jess Robinson is legit, but we came off the match against North Carolina and she only had 11 attempts in the whole five set match, so that was a point of emphasis in this week of practice.”
Though Robinson was the face of Michigan’s relentless effort up front, she was certainly not alone. Freshman middle blocker Jacque Boney executed three blocks of her own during a stellar second set run.
Coming off of seven blocks and a career-high-tying seven kills against North Carolina, Boney has continued to establish herself as a critical piece of the rotation.
“She’s obviously really physical, as one of the tallest girls on our team, but she is always ready for feedback and telling other people that she can always do better,” Robinson said. “And the hard work shows because she’s getting so many kills and blocks. She’s young too, so I think she’ll only get better.”
The success of the middle blockers certainly pays direct dividends on the scoreboard, yet at the same time, it benefits the rest of the team. When the middles get involved, the opponent’s blockers are a little later getting to the outsides, creating holes and seams to attack.
This dynamic benefits the Wolverines in both directions. For redshirt sophomore libero Hannah Grant, the extra time that is forced on the opponent to expand their movement minimizes the need for movement among her teammates.
“Reading around the block just makes my job 10 times easier,” Grant said. “Since the ball is funneling right to me, I don’t have to do a lot of extra movement or jump into holes. We’re doing a really good job of closing that block and I can just read right around it so it’s very helpful.”
As for the holes on the other side, they are most dangerous against Michigan’s increasing balance across the whole floor. With junior opposite hitter May Pertofsky now a well established threat and sophomore setter Scottee Johnson providing reliable assists, gone are the days of teams beating Michigan by solely containing junior outside hitter Paige Jones.
“Spreading the ball around makes it really hard for other teams to try and pinpoint our one big hitter, so it’s really helpful that there’s not one person who is carrying the whole team on their back,” Robinson said. “We can all count on each other to get kills.”
And after Friday’s win, one thing about achieving that balance is clear: it’s all about finding the middle.