To knock off ranked opponents, a team must execute in all phases and handle the big moments well. Failing to do so consistently makes that already-uphill battle even steeper.
The Michigan volleyball team (14-10 overall, 5-9 Big Ten) came into Sunday’s matchup against No. 14 Purdue (18-6, 9-5) looking for a much-needed win deep into conference play. Despite the Wolverines’ aggressive and optimistic gameplan, the Boilermakers’ hard-hitting attack slipped through Michigan’s blocking in a 3-1 win for Purdue at Cliff Keen Arena.
Michigan entered Sunday’s matinée following a 3-0 loss at No. 9 Minnesota on Friday, but was eager to boost its résumé with a win against the upper echelon of the Big Ten as it enters the stretch run of the regular season. Its game plan coming in reflected that urgency and determination.
“I feel like tactically, we didn’t really change much from a skill perspective,” junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik said. “It was all about our mindset coming into this match. … I thought our focus going into this match was being aggressive and just going after it.”
The first set didn’t stick to the script. The set began in a tug-of-war, with each team trading 4-0 runs in the early going. A competitive rally that ended with a kill by sophomore middle blocker Jacque Boney allowed the Wolverines to nudge ahead, 8-7. From that moment, the Boilermakers stole the edge, forcing Michigan to continuously play catch-up. Michigan eventually cut a 17-13 deficit down to just one, but Purdue pulled away down the stretch, clinching the set 25-21 off a kill by outside hitter Emma Ellis.
After a first set that got away from them, Michigan found itself in an early hole in the second set, with the Boilermakers racing out to a 4-0 advantage. Michigan coach Mark Rosen stressed that these moments are areas the team can improve in.
“There are a lot of moments in a match,” Rosen said. “There are moments of pressure, sometimes it’s just the start of a match and getting going. In the second set, we got off to a really rough start. The rest of the set, we’re battling back from that. We got to be better in those moments, and I think right now we’re stringing bad points together.”
As those bad moments piled up in the second set, so did the score, as Purdue handily took the win, 25-15, and had 11 more kills than the Wolverines after the set. However, the third set finally saw Michigan execute its game plan, with clean and strategic serving to complement solid blocking up front.
“We served the ball really well in the third set, and that was the plan in the first and second set as well, but we didn’t execute very well,” Rosen said. “Third set, we were serving aggressively into the gaps but then also doing it consistently. … When we put pressure on them with the serving, it changed the game, no question.”
The team was propelled by Mruzik in the third set, whose scrappy play pushed the team to a 25-19 win. Mruzik had 11 kills for the match and recorded a solo block to win the set, continuing to show her responsiveness to Rosen’s directives.
In the fourth set, Michigan was able to battle back multiple times from deficits, including tying the match from an early 10-4 deficit, but Purdue proved too tough to handle. The Boilermakers won the set, 25-20, off a match-winning kill by middle blocker Raven Colvin.
“(Rosen) mentioned that a couple of times we just need to execute better and longer,” Mruzik said. “I think that’s one very key area that we can grow in. … At times, we need to do the same thing over and over again. And right now, I think we’re a little here and there with our execution.”
Michigan, now tied for 10th in the Big Ten, will have the week to regroup and find that desired consistency before their home matchup against Northwestern. And if it can’t, the Wolverines will only fall further.