With their backs against a wall and its season on the line, the Michigan volleyball team came out of the huddle to respond to a late run by Colorado State.
Trying to force a decisive fifth set to extend their NCAA Tournament run, senior outside hitter Katherine Mahlke failed to answer on the Rams’ match point, mishandling the point to end her career with the Wolverines — as well as those of Adeja Lambert and Claire Kieffer-Wright.
In a tightly contested match, Michigan (11-9 Big Ten, 21-12 overall) saw its season come to an end against No. 23 Colorado State in four sets. Contrary to their scoring struggle late, the Wolverines had an offensively efficient game. The Rams were just better.
“I thought offensively we were pretty good,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “I thought we sided out — one of the indicators we look at is sideout percentage — like what percentage we sideout in serve, receive. Usually if we’re above 60, we feel pretty good about it. We were 65 tonight, so offensively, we did a really good job. But you know, you can’t let the other team do even better offensively, and it got us in trouble.”
Colorado State got out to a fast start. Scoring three unanswered points, the Rams built an early lead that they didn’t relinquish until Michigan went on a 7-4 run to tie the first set at 23. Despite the comeback effort, the Wolverines failed to find an answer to the balanced offense of Colorado State, allowing the Rams to score two consecutive points to clinch the set, 25-23.
“They got two really good outside hitters. They got two middles. They got an opposite, so they’re very balanced with their five attackers,” Rosen said. “So it gets hard to get a read on them. It’s hard to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to stop this play.’ If you just stop one of them, it’s not enough.
“So I think their balance was really good, and I think that created problems for us. I think their setter does a really good job of running that offense so I think that was what was most troubling or hard for us.”
That offense didn’t slow down at the start of the second. Coming out in a similar fashion as the first set, Colorado State built an early lead.
However, it saw its 5-0 lead quickly diminish as Michigan rallied behind sophomore outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Cori Crocker to tie the game at seven apiece. Wetterstrom finished the game with nine kills, while Crocker finished with 12 kills on a team-high attack percentage of .500.
The back-and-forth frame continued until both teams found themselves in the same situation as the first, tied late in the set at 22. Refusing to drop another close set, Crocker and Mahlke scored back-to-back points before closing the set on a service error by the Rams.
The third set continued where the second set left off, with the lead switching between the teams. Colorado State broke off into a 3-0 run and maintained the lead to win the set, 25-22.
The Wolverines had their transition game exposed during the exchange. With their first-ball kill strategy not working against the Rams’ defense, Michigan failed to adjust during transition, allowing the balanced offense of Colorado State to score on the unset defense.
Junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt looked to fix the problem. She kept the Wolverines in the fourth frame early, scoring seven kills in the set. She finished the match with a game-high 17 kills and added 15 digs for her eighth double-double of the season.
Sophomore setter Mackenzie Welsh recorded her third double-double of the season with 56 assists and 10 digs, helping the Wolverines build a 24-21 lead late in the fourth set. Despite the lead, the Rams’ offense once again proved too much for Michigan, as they closed the match on a 5-0 run.
“I thought we had a chance to put the fourth set away and all of a sudden we’d be in a fifth set,” Rosen said. “We just couldn’t put it away in that last rotation. Disappointing, but I’m proud of how our team fought this year.”