Centimeters separated senior opposite hitter Katherine Mahlke and the scorer’s table as she sprawled over it to save a loose ball. With a backward flick of the wrist, she pushed the ball back into play and watched as her teammates finished off the point to salvage a seemingly dead play.
Michigan State called a timeout promptly after to calm the atmosphere, but it proved useless as Michigan continued on with its sweep of the eighth-ranked Spartans in three sets.
Though the Wolverines dominated the set count, every point mattered in each of the closely-contested frames.
Players such as junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt, junior libero Jenna Lerg and freshman middle blocker Kiara Shannon recognized this and made plays on the ball every time the opportunity was given.
In the midst of a second set that involved 23 lead changes, Lerg dove forward at the ball inches above the ground. In a last-ditch effort, she threw her arm underneath to propel the ball to sophomore setter MacKenzi Welsh, who then set up Adeja Lambert as the senior outside hitter cut to the net.
The ball, killed by Lambert, curled off two Spartan blockers and out of bounds, and Michigan was rewarded for its effort with a 21-20 lead.
“I think it’s more so of a mindset than a physical skill,” Lerg said. “Even if the ball is two centimeters off the ground, just making effort for it because you never know when you can get it and when you can’t.
“We have this saying in the gym, that’s ‘Let the ball decide. Don’t decide if you can get the ball. Let the ball decide.’”
Skjodt followed suit, recording 12 digs and numerous hustle plays that would have lost the Wolverines the point if they were not made. One notable play was a one-handed dig, similar to Lerg’s, that produced a Michigan State error and a Michigan lead in the third set.
Meanwhile, Shannon contributed to the Wolverines’ effort with her refusal to allow roll shots past her. As a Spartan player tried to float a soft ball above her, she would tip it to Welsh off of a block attempt, rather than put the burden on a pursuing Lerg to receive it.
With the Wolverines’ grit and aggression, the pressure was on the Spartans to make similar plays. Despite leading the nation in service aces, Michigan State failed to replicate that effort, and instead gave up nine service errors and 15 attacking errors.
Defensive gambles allowed Michigan to benefit from those errors. Each player took it upon themselves to be accountable for every point scored against them. This allowed the Wolverines to play without hesitation — making the aggressive block or assist instead waiting for the dig, or jumping to the sideline for a stray ball without fear of injury.
“Your mindset controls how you react,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “If you’re nervous, or you’re afraid, or you’re not confident, then you look slow, or you look like you’re caught off guard. Defensively, I thought we scrapped really well, especially earlier in the match. And we just created so many scoring opportunities in transition because of our defense.”
The importance of these extra efforts was emphasized by the score’s closeness. With the Wolverines scrapping for every point, everything mattered in a game where the second and third sets ended 29-27 and 25-23, respectively.
“The worst misnomer in sports is, ‘Oh, this team wants it more than the other team,’” Rosen said. “Every team wants it. It’s mentally being in the right place, where you’re confident, and relaxed and able to react. And tonight, our players were in that zone where they let each other play and not think. Because as soon as you think, the game’s too fast.”