Just four days after falling short in a five-set thriller against Notre Dame, the Michigan volleyball team had something to prove against the Fighting Irish on Sunday afternoon.
Powered by sophomore outside hitter Paige Jones’ third consecutive double-double, the Wolverines (7-3) finished their non-conference slate on a high note, exacting revenge on Notre Dame, 25-23, 25-15, 20-25, 25-16, in the second half of the home-and-home series.
Michigan raced out to an early lead, winning seven of the match’s first nine points. Freshman opposite May Pertofsky exposed holes within the Fighting Irish’s (7-3) serve receive with a pair of aces, forcing Notre Dame into an early timeout. The middle stages of the set were relatively even, with the teams splitting the next 26 points coming out of the timeout.
Neither side was able to string together more than two in a row until the Fighting Irish scored four unanswered points to tie the frame at 23.
With the opening set on the line, senior setter MacKenzi Welsh took control of a broken play. Notre Dame’s outside hitter tried to roll a ball over her block, but Welsh sent the ball to the back corner on the first contact. It landed just out of the reach of a diving libero, giving the Wolverines the only set point they needed.
Michigan has been relatively inconsistent with the first contact throughout the early stages of the season, so Welsh has grown accustomed to getting creative. When poor passing puts the Wolverines out of system, their senior floor captain kept them in the rally.
“It’s a lot of running around sometimes,” Welsh said. “Consistently, if people are working hard defensively then it’s me working twice as hard to make sure that we’re putting the next ball up and making the play better. Just trying to get hitters in the best position possible while also fighting for the people who hit the first touch.
“That’s the most important thing in our gym — defense and fighting all the way through the rally.”
Michigan’s emphasis on defense carried over into the second set, particularly in the front row. The Wolverines posted nine team blocks for the match, with five different players recording multiple block assists.
Fifth-year senior middle blocker Cori Crocker tallied a season-high six blocks and chipped in four kills. Even when she wasn’t sending balls back, her touches at the net slowed most swings down before they reached the back row.
“Sometimes (Crocker) tries to be too big,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “ … She plays big and sometimes she needs to play a little more controlled and not always so big. I thought tonight she did that really well.
“Their offense is very patterned in what they do. I thought our blockers did a good job of picking up their pattern and then being very efficient against it.”
When it came time to finish the sweep, however, the Fighting Irish fought back. They came out of the locker room with a refined approach that emphasized tactical serves at different distances in an effort to move the Wolverines’ passers off their line. It kept the unit off-guard, thus making the back row less aggressive in anticipation.
Michigan’s serve receive failed to adjust and its offense suffered as a result. Without a consistent foundation to work from, Welsh spent most of the set scrambling. The Wolverines’ third-set hitting percentage was capped at just .100, their lowest mark of the match by over 175 percentage points. They committed eight errors, a stark contrast to the nine total mistakes they made in the three other sets combined.
But in the fourth frame, Michigan returned the favor when it mattered most. The Wolverines used a six-point run midway through the set to put the match out of reach, holding Notre Dame to a hitting percentage of -.088 — just its second negative efficiency rating in a set this season.
Fittingly, Crocker’s sixth block set up Michigan’s first match point. The Fighting Irish were held to a hitting percentage of just .117 for the match — a 74-point improvement from the mid-week matchup for the Wolverines. Rosen spoke highly of his team’s defense during Wednesday’s loss in South Bend, but noticed one key difference in his team’s blocking in Sunday’s rematch.
“Tonight, we got (blocks) on the stat sheet,” Rosen said. “We blocked them to the point where they really weren’t coverable as much.”