The fast start by the No. 23 Michigan volleyball team Sunday at Cliff Keen Arena had the Wolverines full of energy. It was 7-1, and the Wolverines were rolling against No. 14 Ohio State, a team they hadn’t beat twice in a row since 2009.
Coming off a straight-set win against Maryland on Friday, the Wolverines had shown up to play. And even though the blistering hot pace didn’t continue, Michigan’s energy never faded.
During the Buckeye-dominated third set, Michigan sophomore libero Jenna Lerg ran from behind the back line and, with one arm outstretched, saved a ball with an incredible dive to set up a spike for her teammates. But Ohio State recovered, sending a spike of its own flying at Lerg, who this time couldn’t come up with the dig.
The Buckeyes (2-4 Big Ten, 12-6 overall) won the set, but Michigan’s defense didn’t relent. In the following set, those same type of dives helped set up crucial kills down the line, as Michigan (4-2, 15-3) took the final set, 27-25, and the match, 3-1.
“Big plays create energy, everyone knows that,” said senior middle blocker Abby Cole. “But if we have players that net consistently, our energy is really good throughout the night.”
To keep their energy up, no matter the situation, the Wolverines are not afraid to hit the ground and dive headfirst to save a ball.
“Personally, I’ve been doing it since third grade,” said freshman setter MacKenzi Welsh. “You do it for so long that it doesn’t really hurt anymore.”
Diving again and again can be exhausting, with bumps and bruises almost a guarantee. But Cole points out that the Wolverines will do whatever it takes to defend their turf.
“We need to protect our court,” Cole said. “We need to make sure the ball stays off our court.”
The 6-foot-5 Cole isn’t against laying it all out for her team either.
“Jenna (Lerg) and Adeja (Lambert) do a lot more diving than I do,” Cole said. “For me, it’s a long way down, so when I go down I better get that ball.”
Sixteen kills by Lambert and 15 by Cole won the match for the Wolverines, but as Michigan coach Mark Rosen iterates, defense wins championships.
“I didn’t think we defended great last weekend,” Rosen said. “That was really our focus all week long and so it’s really encouraging as a coach to come out and see it applied during the weekend.”
And Rosen recognizes that the passion and pride he witnesses isn’t something you see on every college team. He says that fostering that energy starts with the upperclassmen.
Before practice Saturday morning, the two fifth-year seniors — outside hitters Kelly Murphy and Ally Davis — were the first ones in the gym, having fun playing a game of doubles well before practice.
“I think if you go to gyms around the country, you’ll see the fifth-year senior sitting in the corner, maybe icing something, maybe stretching something,” Rosen said. “That’s what I love about these guys. They love the game of volleyball, even though they’ve been here for five years. Their bodies are a little beat up, they’ve both had multiple surgeries, but they want to play volleyball because they love the game.”
As Cole puts it, “We probably pull muscles more when we’re celebrating than when we’re actually playing.”
However, even with the passion that Michigan showed this weekend — defeating the Terrapins and Buckeyes and moving to fifth place in the Big Ten — Rosen knows that a very tough conference schedule looms ahead. But having played the kind of defense they did on Sunday, the Wolverines have proven that they can hang with the very best teams in the country.