Down 24-23 in the second set, sophomore outside hitter Jess Mruzik stepped up to serve. She took a deep breath, tossed the ball up and promptly it into the tape. As the ball came crashing down to the ground, a look of disappointment washed over the Michigan players’ faces. After cutting an 11-point deficit to one, the issues that had plagued the Wolverine’s outside hitters early in Sunday’s match returned to cost them.
Plenty of hitting errors stemming from Michigan’s outside hitters, combined with inefficient blocking, constantly put the Wolverines behind early in sets. It didn’t help that Michigan State outside hitter Sarah Franklin rarely missed her early on, further highlighting the issues on the Michigan front row.
But despite early-set struggles, the Wolverine’s front swung momentum back in their direction. Led by Mruzik and senior outside hitter Paige Jones, who combined for six kills and a service ace in the span of 14 points, Michigan nearly came back from a 21-10 deficit in the second set, ultimately succumbing to a 25-23 defeat, tying the match at one set apiece.
“I wasn’t swinging aggressively and that kind of got me into trouble,” Jones said. “(Michigan coach Mark Rosen) came up to us and told us that we need to start banging it out in trouble. Most of the time you get some good touches off of that … so I just went up and swung away.”
Michigan’s front row continued to improve in the later sets, building off the momentum that they had created on their second set run. Junior middle blocker May Pertofsky began to get more involved, recording eight kills and four blocks.
“Late in the game May did a great job of coming in and helping block a couple times,” Rosen said. “Even though there was speed around her, she was able to ignore that speed and go get the big hit.”
The Wolverine front row finally brought it all together at the end of the fourth set. Tied 25-25, freshman middle blocker Jacque Boney showed her mettle. Boney got up close and personal with the Spartan attackers, earning the point on a powerful block. Just two points later, Boney did it again, giving Michigan a 27-26 lead. The Wolverines closed it out on the next attack, claiming the fourth set and the 3-1 victory.
“She’s a young player and she still has a lot of things to learn, but she just has an innate ability to block balls.” Rosen said. “Those were huge points … but she does that a lot. It’s too many times to be an accident.”
Michigan’s slow start up front led to a dropped set and a heavily contested match. The front row’s turnaround then became the anchor to their victory. For the Wolverines to find success, their middle blockers and outside hitters need to begin each match at the level they ended it on Sunday.