Entering a rematch with No. 5 Wisconsin Sunday, the No. 25 Michigan volleyball team had upset on its mind. When the Wolverines held a three point lead late in the third set, that revenge seemed within reach, and so did a long-awaited top-25 win.
But Michigan fell back down to earth amid a series of self-inflicted errors. It entered its match Sunday on a three-game losing streak against ranked opponents, and that trend ultimately continued as the Wolverines (14-7 overall, 4-6 Big Ten) lost to the Badgers again (15-3, 9-1), 3-1.
“There’s a high bar when we’re playing in our conference playing against the fifth-ranked team in the country,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “It’s like every night, it’s somebody else who’s got a small number in front. So it pushes us to be really, really clean, near perfect. And I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but I loved how we played.”
The first set showed a glimpse of the clean, near-perfect team that Michigan is capable of being — resilient, gritty and powerful.
Senior opposite hitter May Pertofsky started off the match by notching three kills for each of the Wolverines’ first three points. The first nine points were tightly-contested, as Michigan and the Badgers tied eight different times on the way to a draw at nine apiece.
Wisconsin capitalized on two Wolverine errors, combining with a block and several well-placed kills to take a commanding six-point lead, 19-13. The set appeared to be all but over, until three unforced Badger errors suddenly closed that gap.
“That first set really, really demonstrated our grit,” junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik said. “And that’s something that we’ve been talking about since I’ve been here, is just never giving up. Keep fighting, making the plays and it might not always be pretty, but getting the point at the end of the day.”
Two quick kills from senior middle blocker Jess Robinson and senior middle blocker Jacque Boney forced Wisconsin to call a timeout to stop the bleeding.
It didn’t work, and the Wolverines closed out the set in convincing manner. Four straight kills from Mruzik drove Michigan to take the first set, 25-22.
The Wolverines brought that energy into the second set, and behind kills from Pertofsky and Mruzik, they took a 10-7 lead. Wisconsin quickly closed the gap, tying the set at 12 and taking the lead on the next point.
Rosen called timeout after falling behind, 15-13, but it wasn’t enough to stop Wisconsin as it cruised to take the second set, 25-18.
It wasn’t errors that did Michigan in, rather the defending National Champions’ dominance on the attack. The Badgers found holes in the Wolverine defense and exploited them, while Michigan’s attack had trouble swinging against the second-best blocking team in the nation.
The Badger defense targeted Robinson — the nation’s leader in hitting percentage —and prevented Michigan from ever getting its quick offense started in the middle.
“She’s drawing a lot of attention right now because she’s playing so well, and that’s a credit to her,” Rosen said. “But also that gives us other options.”
The Wisconsin blockers’ focus on Robinson in the middle opened up the Michigan attack on the outsides, allowing Pertofsky to get more open swings — and mark a new career best with 16 kills.
Unfazed, Michigan entered the third set with renewed energy. The start to the third resembled that of the first — each team trading off points, neither taking charge of the set.
That is, until Pertofsky notched two straight kills and a block assist to boost the Wolverines to a 14-11 lead. Combined with a well-placed sideline kill from Mruzik, Michigan forced a Wisconsin timeout, extending their lead thanks to another Wisconsin error out of the break.
Michigan could have run away with the set right then and there. Instead, it invited Wisconsin back in with three straight unforced errors to tie the set at 17.
From there, the Wolverines and the Badgers traded off kills until back-to-back Michigan errors put Wisconsin up, 23-22. The Badgers closed off the set with two straight kills to take the set, 25-22.
Pertofsky started off the fourth set with another kill as the battle continued, nearly every point resulting from an extended rally. The Wolverines and the Badgers traded blows until Wisconsin extended their lead to three points at 18-15, forcing a Michigan timeout.
The timeout was unable to halt the Badgers’ momentum, as their attack quickly pounded down kills en route to a 25-19 victory.
“Our goal was to be very steady in serve receive, be very relentless inside, outside and then be relentless on defense,” Rosen said. “Serve tough, go aggressive, and I thought we did that. There were just small breaks that kind of slipped a little bit, not because we did anything wrong, but because it’s a really good team on the other side of the court.”
Ultimately, the Wolverines were simply outplayed by Wisconsin’s blocking and attack. In the Big Ten, with seven teams ranked in the top 25, Michigan will have to play cleaner if it wants to stop its skid.