Whether she played her best game or not against Iowa, on Saturday, Kelly Murphy was an asset to the Michigan volleyball team. Through the first three sets, the fifth-year senior outside hitter notched 11 kills, setting the pace for the 22nd-ranked Wolverines. But in the fourth set, she faced difficulty converting her attacking opportunities. At one point during the set, her two consecutive attack errors allowed the Hawkeyes to narrow the gap from nine to seven points. That is when Murphy showed her persistence again.
Murphy remained undeterred by her difficulties in the fourth set, proving in the process that her consistency is one of her biggest strengths. After service from the Hawkeyes, Murphy received a set from freshman setter MacKenzi Welsh. While a taller and more athletic player may have slammed the ball down on Iowa, Murphy approached the play differently. She chose to showcase her astute volleyball know-how, softly tapping the ball right behind the opposition’s blocker to give the Wolverines a 21-13 lead, and eventually, a 3-1 match victory.
“(Assistant coach Leisa Rosen) says to me, ‘That’s the most aggravating play,’ ” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “Because it works. It drives people crazy. (Murphy says) ‘I can’t out jump you, but I can outplay you.’ ”
Ever since Rosen recruited her five years ago, he knew physicality would be a weakness for Murphy. He kept watching her, though, and she continued to impress him both on the high school and club courts as she won tournament after tournament.
Murphy finds ways to beat opponents despite her less physical playing style. She led the Wolverines on Friday night with 10 kills against top-ranked Nebraska and finished tied for first with 12 kills against the Hawkeyes. As a server, Murphy added two service aces against the Hawkeyes to bring her team-leading total to 15.
“She’s a really savvy volleyball player,” Rosen said. “She makes up for some of the lack of physicality with just being really, really skilled volleyball-wise.
"She doesn’t ride waves. She’s very steady. You see her after a mistake or after a kill, the same person every single time. I think she really transfers a lot of confidence within her team and a lot of consistent mentality. She is a stabilizer for the team.”
As a fifth-year senior, Murphy knows Michigan’s system as well as the coaching staff and their tendencies. With a large class of freshmen, Murphy and the other captains serve as examples of players who have thrived in Ann Arbor.
For freshmen, Murphy serves a model of consistency. It’s a quality she emphasizes during practices and games.
“I think often the freshmen come in, and it’s really intimidating,” Murphy said. “Often they’re very serious, and I think it’s important to be able to have fun and also work hard at the same time.
"I think helping the freshmen and the younger players find that balance is something that myself and the other captains do really well.”
As a senior, Murphy has adapted to a new role as a nearly constant starter, starting 13 of 14 games thus far. Players shuffle back and forth from the bench to the court, but Murphy remains. She plays in the front — battling taller and more physical players — and stands in the back, waiting for the ball hit in her direction.
“There’s going to be physical players who jump out of the gym and hit the ball 100 miles per hour from a really high point, and that’s not Kelly’s game,” Rosen said. “It doesn’t hurt her feelings to hear that she’s not the most physical kid.
"She uses what she has brilliantly. She likes playing really physical people because she’ll hammer it off their hands.”
No matter the position, she remains unfazed. Murphy uses her tactical prowess to make up for her physical disadvantages and still manages to continuously stymie opponents.