In front of a sell-out crowd Saturday night, the Michigan volleyball team (5-3 Big Ten, 16-4 overall) clinged to a 24-20 lead in the fourth set of its match against No. 1 Wisconsin. The Wolverines had stormed back from a two-set deficit to take back the momentum of the match when freshman setter Mackenzi Welsh set up senior blocker Abby Cole, who hammered home a powerful kill to send the match to a fifth tiebreaker set.
But Michigan was unable to complete the comeback, falling 13-15 to the Badgers in the final set, just missing out on a major upset.
“All week, we talked about how we want to respect every opponent … (but) the person we want to respect the most is ourselves,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “We want to go in there and know that…we’re as good as anybody out there. I’m just really proud of how we battled tonight.”
Michigan took an early 6-3 lead in the first set on a kill by junior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright. But Michigan was unable to keep the advantage, and the two teams went back and in an opening frame that featured eight lead changes. A kill by Wisconsin standout Tionna Williams and a block error by Welsh gave the Badgers the first set.
In the second set, Wisconsin (7-1, 15-2) was outplaying the Wolverines with a .484 kill percentage. With the momentum not in their favor, Michigan let up to the Badgers, 18-25.
Down two games at that point, Michigan seemed unfazed to start the third set.
“I think it’s hard when you’re down 2-0,” Rosen said. “That can be a time when maybe you start to get a little passive, and we knew that wasn’t going to be a recipe for success.”
Junior outside hitter Adeja Lambert set the tone for a comeback with a kill to begin the third set. In a six-point stretch, kills from Welsh and senior outside hitter Ally Davis, blocks by Welsh and Kieffer-Wright, and a service ace from freshman libero Tiffany Clark gave Michigan a 10-3 lead, and Wisconsin never fully recovered. The Badgers called their first timeout to stem the tide, but it wasn’t enough, as they lost the set, 25-17.
“I think it was just a turning point,” Cole said, “I was actually laughing with my teammates in the moment because one of our assistant coaches, Lisa, (had) turned to me and said, ‘You need to find your hitter.’ ”
Michigan continued its strong play to start the fourth set, hitting a four-point stride. Kieffer-Wright and Cole led with hitting percentages of .857 and .667, respectively, and Welsh recorded 14 assists in the fourth set alone. Despite the loss of Lambert to a leg injury, the Wolverines never lost momentum. A .359 Michigan kill percentage led to a final score of 20-25, and it gave way to the deciding fifth set.
“I think that’s something that’s making this team really compete well and grow well,” Rosen said. “…They’re focusing on what they can control. That’s a great example of something you can’t do anything about, so you just got to play through it.”
Then tied with the top-ranked Badgers, Michigan huddled up on the court as the energy of the crowd pulsed from all corners of Cliff Keen Arena.
Cole asserted Michigan’s confidence on the court on a first-point kill. Following a kill from junior right-side hitter Katherine Mahlke and a service ace from Welsh, the Wolverines took a three-point lead. However, a service run by Wisconsin tied up the match and the score danced back and fourth before Michigan tied it up again at 13-13 on a three-point serving run by Welsh. Wisconsin, though, took the final two points to claim victory.
Rosen highlighted the performance of Welsh, who had 49 overall assists and a career-high 6 kills. He acknowledged that Welsh was up against the number one senior setter, Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini, a first team All-American who played on the national team.
“She’s just getting better every game,” Rosen said.“(She’s) a freshman (who is) learning really quickly. We’re seeing her grow up right before our eyes.
“They also came from the same club,” Rosen said, “… so you know that’s a big challenge for a player… Mackenzi was looking at that going, ‘Hey, I want to go one-on-one with her’. … Watching her be in that moment and be as good as she was tonight, I’m really proud of her.”
Two of the three Big Ten matches the Wolverines have played have been against number one ranked teams, which illustrates the high level of competition Michigan is up against and promises a season devoid of dull moments.
“We’re playing in the best volleyball conference in the country,” Cole said. “You can’t overlook any team. You’re not guaranteed any wins … that in itself is motivating. We need to be very well prepared coming to every single match.”