Tensions were running wild as the Michigan volleyball team and Minnesota took the court at Crisler Center on Friday night.
It had been seven years since the Wolverines’ last victory over the Golden Gophers. That run included an early-season defeat, when Michigan nearly rallied from down two sets to none before coming up short in the final set. So when the ball came crashing down off the hands of junior middle blocker Jess Robinson and junior opposite hitter May Pertofsky, completing the fifth-set victory, a thrill washed over the stadium.
Michigan (10-4 overall, 3-2 Big Ten) finally snapped its eight-match losing streak against the eighth-ranked Golden Gophers (8-5, 3-2) in a back-and-forth five-set match. Unlike in the prior meeting, the Wolverines completed their comeback, rallying from down 2-1 to earn the victory.
Everything clicked for Michigan in the first set as it raced out to a one-set lead. Senior outside hitter Paige Jones shined, tallying six kills, an ace and a block assist. Any momentum that Minnesota held was quickly crushed by the four service errors it committed. For most of the set, it seemed like the Wolverines were going to cruise to an easy victory.
But the early momentum did not last long. The Gopher defense at the net overpowered Michigan in the second set, recording five team blocks and limiting the Wolverines to a -.048 hitting percentage. By the time Michigan coach Mark Rosen called a timeout, down 14-7, Minnesota All-American Stephanie Samedy had outkilled the entire Wolverine team five to two.
“One of our big goals was to not give them clean kills, ” Rosen said. “We wanted to make sure that if they’re gonna get a kill, they’re swinging two, three, four times. … The second set all of a sudden they were getting a lot of first-swing kills.”
The timeout would not help much, though, as the Golden Gophers won 11 of the next 17 points to tie the match at one set apiece.
Michigan began to regroup in the third set as the attack rebounded. Sophomore outside hitter Jess Mruzik got more involved, recording four of her match-high 20 kills. In order to get around the opposing blockers, the front row aimed for more deep crosscourt kills. Despite the adjustments, the Wolverines still came up short, dropping the set 26-24 and going down 2-1.
“We weren’t as efficient in those second and third sets,” Mruzik said. “Minnesota’s a great team and we knew that they weren’t just gonna roll over and let us beat them, but we were just more efficient in that first set.”
Once again, the match swung in Michigan’s favor in the fourth set. Mruzik added six more kills, but it was the middle blockers — Robinson and freshman Jacque Boney — that led the way. Boney recorded three solo blocks and a block assist in the set, while Robinson added a solo block and an assist of her own. Meanwhile, Pertofsky added two more service aces to her Big Ten-leading total of 28, and the team cruised to a 25-14 victory.
The final set was not without strife for the Wolverines. Tied at four, Samedy sent a kill to the back left corner to give the Golden Gophers the lead, but the lost point wasn’t the worst news for Michigan on the play. Jones remained down on the ground with an apparent quad injury and had to be replaced by senior outside hitter Abbey Malinowski. In just her second appearance of the season, Malinowski stepped up and recorded a kill of her own.
“We have to deal with her every day in practice and she can tear us up sometimes,” Rosen said. “She hasn’t had a lot of opportunity. … It would have been easy for a lot of people to just pull back in that situation and be safe. She wasn’t safe and I love that about her.”
With the help of Malinowski, the Wolverines held their ground in the fifth set and completed the comeback victory. Though it wasn’t always pretty, Michigan did just enough to win, fighting back from some mid-match blows for its first ranked win of the season.