For the third time in three games, the Michigan volleyball team found itself playing a fifth set. Despite a 2-1 lead, the Wolverines regressed in the match’s fourth set, against a familiar opponent, Illinois, losing 25-15. It forced a decisive final test, one which they’ve struggled with as of late.
Friday night, Northwestern defeated Michigan, 15-13, in the fourth set after a play that Wolverines’ coach Mark Rosen attributed to “a weird bounce.”
And the previous weekend, the Wolverines lost to the Fighting Illini in Urbana-Champaign in five sets as well.
Fatigued from Friday night’s disappointing loss, Michigan returned to practice early Saturday morning.
“We had to kinda pick people up a little bit, including the coaches,” Rosen said. “We’re all feeling it a little bit. And people just kept getting a little more enthused, a little more excited. Come game time, they were ready to play and I’m just really proud of them for that.”
After junior libero Jenna Lerg’s final serve landed and bounced past the outstretched hands of Illinois defensive specialist Annika Gereau, both the players and Rosen felt a sense of relief. For the first time all season, the Wolverines earned a victory in the decisive fifth set. Before it began, Rosen opted not to dwell on the magnitude of the match.
His assistant coach, Leisa Rosen, presented a more different approach.
“Leisa is the head of that kind of fighting mentality,” said senior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright. “She’s really gritty, and she loves winning and coaching. She just kept telling us to keep pushing, keep fighting, gut it out.”
In order to prepare for these crucial fifth sets, Michigan spends time in practice working on a technique called “Scenario Scoring.” The coaches hold a set of playing cards which the players in turn draw and are assigned a score.
“It’ll be 21-20 or you’re down 19-20 and you have to come back,” Rosen said. “We do that a lot in practice because those are the crucial points of the game you want to be good at, and we haven’t been as great at them as well as we would like. And so I think they’re starting to get it a little bit.”
Sophomore outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom further explained that the team plays its games with a “Five-point mentality,” competing for each set in five-point increments. In a pressure-filled, 15-point final game, this “five-point” concept eases the Wolverines’ concerns.
Saturday night, Michigan not only won a fifth set for the first time, but it also avenged last weekend’s loss to the Fighting Illini. During the week’s practice, the Wolverines focused on neutralizing Illinois outside hitter Beth Prince, who earned 26 kills and 27 digs in her team’s victory last week. This came at a cost, however, as while Michigan held Prince to just seven and zero, respectively, outside hitter Jacqueline Quade notched 21 kills and five digs — both team-highs.
Rosen thought his team succeeded in blocking Prince on Saturday — eventually forcing her out of the game — but he believes the Wolverines struggled to develop a good scouting report on Quade because she didn’t play well last weekend.
“It definitely showed the second time around that we were more well-prepared,” Wetterstrom said. “Because first time around, No. 8, Prince, she had a hell of a game. And based off tonight’s stats, she hit under what she hit last time. So shutting down their big players and their momentum and focusing on what we can do.”
Added Kieffer-Wright: “It’s always good to see a team two times. To see Illinois again is really good because they knew what they wanted to do. They did the same thing when we were at their place.”
Playing with a chip on its shoulder, Michigan succeeded in rebounding from its two consecutive final set losses.
And in the process, after failing to come back from a 2-0 deficit last week, it triumphed over Illinois.
“To close it out was a really good feeling because we knew we could,” Kieffer-Wright said. “Player-for-player, we’re just as talented. We just came out and did what we needed to do. It took a bit longer than we would’ve liked, but I’m glad it went in our favor.”