With Michigan volleyball coach Erin Virtue returning to her alma mater in Illinois, where she won numerous accolades in her four years there, the match had added stakes.
Unfortunately for Virtue, her homecoming was spoiled in a 3-0 sweep as the Wolverines (7-20 overall, 5-13 Big Ten) struggled against the Fighting Illini (16-12, 11-7) and looked outmatched on the offensive side of the ball throughout the match.
After jumping out to an early 4-2 lead in set one, Michigan conceded six straight points, forcing Virtue to call a timeout. As a strong defensive team, Illinois stifled Michigan’s attacks at the net and excelled at the backline.
“Their defensive end was really strong,” Virtue said. “It was really tough for us to score which led to a pretty low hitting percentage.”
The Wolverines finished set one with just five kills to the Illini’s 15 en route to a 25-13 loss. Michigan scored consecutive points just twice in the first set as the offense struggled to find any kind of momentum.
“We weren’t able to score as many points when we had to serve and play defense,” Virtue said. “It was hard to hold onto that and hold onto runs.”
In the second set, Michigan’s offense got off to a hot start. Capitalizing off of two Illinois service errors, the Wolverines also scored a couple of kills at the net. However, the Illini clawed back, knotting up the lead at ten before both teams went back and forth in a long rally. Illinois ultimately won the point, gaining the lead.
The long rally marked a momentum shift in the set, as Illinois never gave the lead back to the Wolverines for the rest of the set. Stifling a powerful kill attempt from freshman outside hitter Valentina Vaulet, the Illini jumped out to the largest lead of the set to that point at 15-11. This was emblematic of the Wolverines’ sputtering which led to struggles throughout the game.
Michigan continued offensive struggles throughout the rest of the second set as Illinois’ blockers shut down many of the Wolverines’ attempts, leading to a 25-19 loss. And with that, the Illini continued to dominate at the net, eventually ending the match with seven blocks to Michigan’s one.
The third set involved many of the same trends for Michigan. After scoring the first four points in the set, Illinois took over the drivers’ seat for the rest of the match. Despite numerous service errors, the Wolverines struggled to capitalize on any of the Illini’s mistakes.
“That was certainly a strategy of theirs to turn that dial up a little bit,” Virtue said about the Illini serves. “And when you do that, sometimes you come away with errors.”
The Wolverines’ problems lied with failing to capitalize off of those errors. When playing an aggressive serving team, it’s common to concede some aces. But that leaves the need to take advantage of the service errors that come along with aggressive serving as well. Due to its inability to capitalize on errors and gain offensive momentum, Michigan’s offense struggled to string together runs.
That spoiled Virtue’s homecoming, and any chance of a victory at Illinois.