Sophomore setter Mackenzie Welsh and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Cori Crocker shut down Cincinnati’s final scramble with a block, ending the third set as dominantly as they had in the first two sets.
The final exclamation point by Welsh and Crocker sealed the No. 21 Michigan volleyball team’s sweep in the Michigan Challenge Tournament, capping off the final matchup against Cincinnati with a 3-0 victory.
Against its previous opponents in the tournament, many Wolverines posted either season- or career-high numbers. Against UW-Milwaukee, junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt and senior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright recorded a season-high 16 kills and seven blocks, respectively. Senior outside hitter Adeja Lambert also totaled five blocks, a career high.
With momentum from the previous two matches, Michigan started the first set on a tear, outscoring the Bearcats, 9-2, and recording three blocks during the stretch.
“Our defense across the board hasn’t been where we want it to be, and that’s been a big focus for us the whole week at practice,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “I thought we were a little bit better maybe in the last two matches, but I thought tonight was the best defensive, and especially the best blocking match we’ve had this season.”
After a brief Cincinnati timeout, the Wolverines continued to push the Bearcats, capitalizing off their mistakes and going on a seven-point run that forced another Cincinnati timeout. Four of the seven points scored were off attacking or ball handling errors made by the Bearcats.
Michigan won the set, 25-16, despite allowing Cincinnati to score off careless errors, such as two service errors, a bad set and four attack errors.
Though they ended the first set poorly, the Wolverines narrowed down their mistakes entering the second set to take the lead, 9-2. With a comfortable lead, Michigan took riskier points, as Welsh scored on two back-to-back dump shots.
However, Cincinnati answered with a small run, scoring four straight, and shortened the deficit through relentless attacks to make the set 15-13. With a call reversal going to the Bearcats, Cincinnati returned from the game delay down only one and with momentum in its favor.
Hustling for every loose ball and making improbable digs helped Michigan counter the Bearcats’ push for the lead. The two teams went back and forth before the Wolverines gained control toward the end of the set due to Kieffer-Wright’s efforts, who had six kills in eight attempts. Junior libero Jenna Lerg, who led all players with 16 digs, clinched the win by serving an ace that ricocheted off a middle blocker to bounce out of bounds to claim the set, 25-21.
While serves helped Michigan win the second set, Cincinnati used them to dominate the beginning of the third.
“(Cincinnati) came out and changed their serving, and they served the heck out of the ball.” Rosen said. “We use the term ace or error mentality. They came out and they were either going to ace it or make an error, and they were just blasting serves. In the third set they were banging serves at us really hard and our players had to really fight through that.”
Down four points midway through the third set, Michigan used its first and only timeout of the game, unable to deal with the adjustments the Bearcats made during intermission.
Returning from the timeout, Skjodt, the tournament’s MVP, attacked Cincinnati’s middle blockers with a cross court spike that began a 6-1 run. Skjodt ended the match with eight kills and nine digs.
Once the Wolverines regained the 12-11 lead, they encountered few obstacles en route to a win, 25-18. Kieffer-Wright led the team in kills and blocks, with 10 and 7, respectively. The entire team stepped up on its defense, recording a season-high 13 blocks.
This is the momentum Michigan will need as it prepares for conference play against No. 1 Minnesota.