For a game with many unexpected turns, there was one constant in the No. 19 Michigan volleyball team’s matchup against Notre Dame.
For Michigan, it has been the same story all season long. The Wolverines have had a perfect season, winning ten straight games in sweeps, including Friday’s win over the Fighting Irish — 25-22, 25-17 and 25-18. The set streak finally came to an end on Sunday, but the winning streak stayed alive.
Friday’s match, though it appeared otherwise, did not come easily for Michigan. In fact, to start the match, Notre Dame went on an 11-4 run to push the Wolverines to call a timeout in an attempt to shift the momentum. It was evident Michigan was out of sync and sloppy, a moment of lapse the Fighting Irish took advantage of.
“They touch everything with their block,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen on Notre Dame’s defense. “They served really aggressively, and they’re digging. Our outside hitters hit rockets in the first couple sets that got dug, and we’re just not used to that. So I think a little of that put us on our heels, and we had to figure that out.”
And just as Michigan was figuring out adjustments, Notre Dame found a way to match the Wolverines’ efforts, but the Fighting Irish also grew negligent. Careless play came from both sides, with Michigan seeing the better end of many rallies. Two Notre Dame service errors, a floater from senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt and a Skjodt service ace later, momentum shifted in favor of the Wolverines to bring them within four. As the dust settled, it became clear who had the better of whom.
The pressure then started mounting for both teams, as they battled the remainder of the set, tooth and nail. Just when Notre Dame reclaimed the lead at 21-20, however, errors began to plague the Fighting Irish just as they had earlier to cost them at the most inopportune time — though part of it was Michigan stepping up its defensive intensity. A service and two attack errors gave the Wolverines the chance to put the set away, and freshman outside hitter Paige Jones did just that.
Jones had a clear view as she hit a line drive straight into the center of the court, ending the set with two quick kills. Jones, as she has with every game, answered with the composure and patience most veterans learn through experience. She ended with a game-high 13 kills, adding 10 digs for her first career double-double.
The patience and cohesiveness that pushed Michigan over the edge at the end of the first set carried over into the second as the Wolverines took the second set in a similar fashion, but with much less of a scare.
In part, it was due to the adjustments made by junior setter Mackenzi Welsh.
Hesitant to do so in the first set, Welsh started back-row setting in the second that opened the offense to more options previously blocked off by the Fighting Irish front line. By just opening more of the offense to becoming a scoring threat, the efficiency of the team’s attack increased.
While it only had a slight impact in the second, the third benefitted far more from the potent threat of the balanced offense — Michigan’s calling card.
“We need balance,” Rosen said. “For us, that’s our style of our game. And (the Fighting Irish are) a team that tries to take your balance away, because they serve really tough, so if your pass isn’t great, and your setter is on the run, she now has one option to set so that’s what they’re trying to do is make you unbalanced. And we’re trying to stay balanced, so that’s kind of like the battle within the battle.”
Just look at the numbers. The first set saw a .119 attack average. Well below average initially, thanks to Welsh’s previous expansion of the offense, there was a slight increase to .139 in the second set. The third saw a significant jump to a .441. The only jump more significant would be Paige Jones’ after she cut to the front center and ended the game on an emphatic spike.
What made the game tricky for the Wolverines wasn’t just the talent of their opponents — though it was definitely a factor. It was also the Fighting Irish’s unique playstyle, one that Rosen could only describe as “unorthodox.”
“Their tempo is different,” Rosen said. “Trash balls, kinda like junk balls, it’s very unorthodox, and it can be frustrating for blockers because there are a lot of balls that you can’t block. You do everything right and they just junk it over the top, and they make your front row, opposite front row players play a lot of balls, who stand in transition, it’s hard for them to hit. They clog up your system a lot with what they do.”
But the most Notre Dame managed was to stagger — not stop — Michigan’s balanced offense. Key players such as Jones, Skjodt and junior outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom couldn’t be stopped once they got into a rhythm. The team totalled three hitters with double-digit kills and four with double-digit digs. Welsh, Jones and Skjodt posted double-doubles.
“They threw a lot of things at us that we’ve never seen before, just kind of got us off balance a bit,” said senior libero Jenna Lerg. “So being all over the floor just calms us a little bit knowing that they can throw things at us but we’re just going to retaliate.”