At some point this year, the Michigan volleyball team will lose a set.
But that’s a question for another time. Certainly not for Tuesday night against Valparaiso, whom the 20th-ranked Wolverines defeated in three sets (25-19, 25-13, 25-20) for their sixth sweep in six games this season.
It was a typical early-season takedown of an overmatched opponent, done in style. While the contest — especially the first set — was pockmarked with bouts of sloppy play, Michigan mostly did what it was expected to do, pummeling the Crusaders (6-2) into oblivion with fluid chemistry, formidable skill and sheer physical power.
Junior setter MacKenzi Welsh orchestrated the offense to perfection, dishing out 30 assists with a diverse arsenal of passes, while keeping the tempo smooth and balanced. There to turn Welsh’s sets into kills was an imposing front line led by freshman outside hitter Paige Jones, junior outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom, senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt and redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker, who contributed to a season-high .363 hitting percentage.
In particular, Crocker was nearly unstoppable, as the Wolverines recognized a glaring mismatch between their middle blockers and Valparaiso’s right out of the gate. So Crocker went to work, hitting at a .778 clip with eight kills for the contest.
“Mac does a really good job of putting us into spots that we’re isolated one-on-one or running us into gaps,” Crocker said. “We’ve worked really hard on getting middles more involved in our offense as well as setter connection with our middles… and I think that it’s starting to really pay off.”
How do you stop that if you’re the Crusaders — and you have only one starter taller than six feet, compared to Michigan’s five?
For the most part, you don’t.
“Today was definitely a pretty obvious mismatch,” Crocker said. “We had a couple people that definitely could have dominated who they were matched up with.”
As Crocker feasted, her towering presence also opened up the outside for Jones (.438 hitting percentage), Wetterstrom (eight kills) and Skjodt (14). But the offensive onslaught didn’t stop there.
With a two-set lead in hand, coach Mark Rosen was able to ease his reserves into action in the final frame, as freshmen Lizzie Sadilek and Kayla Bair and junior Katarina Glavinic all contributed. Sophomore libero Jacqueline DiSanto also saw considerable playing time in relief of senior Jenna Lerg.
While many starters and key players sat for long stretches of the third set, Skjodt, who Rosen called the “glue” of the team, remained in throughout. Rosen described her presence as crucial for lineup consistency.
“We don’t want to have a new player in there with a bunch of other new players,” he said. “Because then, it’s not like they get a chance to acclimate to what the lineup is like, so we try to sparingly put those kids in, get them experience with veteran kids, with the experienced kids. Because that’s a better way to learn, and they don’t feel that pressure in having to do everything.”
The Wolverines aren’t going to dominate all their opponents the way they did Valparaiso. Not while competing in a Big Ten which claims seven teams — including Michigan — in the AVCA Top-25. As such, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“I think our services could still get better,” Jones said. “First-ball contact, first serving and passing.”
Added Rosen: “We’re settling in on what our top group is and what our lineup is … (and) what our team is looking like.”
But then again, if there’s ever a good time to be patient, to ease up on the concern, it’s right now.
School is just getting back into swing. Conference play is over two weeks away. The Wolverines still haven’t dropped a set.
They’ll eventually have more questions to answer, but they can afford to take their time.