After finishing the first set on an 8-2 run and starting the second on a similar streak, the Michigan volleyball team saw its momentum evaporate midway through the set. Indiana had climbed back to take a 10-9 lead, and the Wolverines needed a spark.
Enter Claire Kieffer-Wright.
The junior middle blocker came up with a kill after a lengthy rally, kick-starting Michigan to a 6-0 run in which Kieffer-Wright registered two blocks and two kills. It was sequences such as this one that defined the contest for the Wolverines. Whenever they needed someone to step up and make an impact, Kieffer-Wright was there.
“We just realized that we can’t wait for Indiana to lose,” Kieffer-Wright said. “We have to come out there and we have to attack them. We were out for blood the whole night.”
Overall, Kieffer-Wright registered 12 kills, 7 blocks and an attack percentage of .421 in No. 17 Michigan’s three-set sweep of Indiana. Her athleticism and energy has been vital for the Wolverines, as coach Mark Rosen stated that they are somewhat lacking in those categories.
“She uses her athleticism really well,” Rosen said. "She’s fast, she’s really explosive off one foot, and in the last couple weeks she’s been really producing a lot offensively because of that speed.”
This description shouldn’t be surprising to those familiar with the Michigan women's track and field team, as Kieffer-Wright stars as a high jumper for the Wolverines in the spring. But Rosen also touted her impact beyond just her physical qualities or statistics.
“(Her contribution) is not only the points she’s scoring and her athleticism, but her personality,” Rosen said. “She’s super competitive, fiery — whenever she gets a kill, there’s an emotional charge from that. We talk a lot in our program about producers versus consumers, and she’s constantly producing in every way that she can.”
All season long, Rosen has been impressed with his team’s next-person-up mentality, and the potential for any one player to be dominant any game. Wednesday night, it was Kieffer-Wright’s turn.
Dominating from the start, she scored the first point of the match on a kill, and she registered another after the Hoosiers had jumped out to the next five points. The timeliness of her contributions was of great importance as well, especially in the second set. After powering the Wolverines’ surge midway through the set, she combined with senior outside hitter Kelly Murphy on a block to finish off the set and send the match to intermission.
The previous meeting between Michigan and Indiana resulted in disappointment for the Wolverines, as they returned home from Bloomington on Oct. 29 with a 3-1 loss. In that match, they allowed the Hoosiers’ middle blockers to control the game. On Wednesday, Kieffer-Wright and the Wolverines’ other middle blocker, senior Abby Cole, were able to almost completely flip that script.
“One of our main points this week in practice that we worked on with (the Hoosiers) in mind was serving and getting them off balance,” Kieffer-Wright said. “We were really capitalizing on blocking their middles.”
With Michigan’s relative deficiency in athletic ability, it may have to rely on Kieffer-Wright more and more, especially heading into one of its most challenging stretches of the season. To close out the regular season, the Wolverines will face the top three teams in the nation — Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively — and will also meet No. 15 Michigan State twice.
“We gotta continue to get better against teams that bring speed,” Rosen said. “We’re going to see that against Minnesota, they’re faster than Indiana and Indiana’s really fast. … Michigan State’s probably one of the top five or six (most physical) teams in the country. They’re just big and they’ll get after you.”
Coming off of a strong recent stretch of performances, Kieffer-Wright adds an important and different definition to the Wolverines. As they continue to grow as a team, she might be the embodiment of this evolution.