Crawling from behind in a third straight set, the Michigan volleyball team needed a win to take the momentum away from Michigan State. After being down four points, the Wolverines turned to their stars. After a series of kills and attack errors, junior middle back May Pertofsky scored a service ace to win the set.
Michigan (8-3 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) took that momentum into the fourth set, and defeated in-state rival Michigan State (7-4, 0-2) on Sunday afternoon in a back and forth match that kept fans on the edge of their seats, three sets to one. But it was an uphill climb from the start.
Both teams traded kills early and looked for weaknesses in their opponent’s defense. After a series of attack errors, the Wolverines looked to be in control, but the Spartans had other plans. With the score tied at 10, Michigan State went on an 8-2 run and threatened to take the first set with ease. As Michigan coach Mark Rosen called timeout, his team looked distressed.
“They run some things that are really difficult to defend, especially when they’re in system, and I thought all night we were trying to get in a rhythm with that,” Rosen said. “We talked about defense and just grinding on defense, they’re a really good offensive team.”
Out of the timeout, the Wolverines looked like a completely different team. With three kills by senior outside hitter Paige Jones and back-to-back service aces by Pertofsky, Michigan tied the set up at 21, and Michigan didn’t stop there. The Wolverines won four of the next five possessions to take the first set, 25-22.
The second set was another gritty battle between the two. At first, both teams traded kills and diving saves until the Spartans took another commanding lead. With three service aces by outside hitter Biamba Kabengele and a series of kills by outside hitter Sarah Franklin, Michigan found themselves calling another timeout down, 16-9.
“Franklin is really good. She’s big, she’s physical,” Rosen said. “They run a lot of stuff really fast away from her, and then what they run with her is pretty fast too, so it pulls blockers to the speed. You can’t chase the speed, you got to get there early, and then all of a sudden, now she’s coming fast to the middle.”
Michigan State extended its lead before the Wolverines keyed a comeback. Sophomore outside hitter Jess Mruzik, Jones, and Pertofsky combined for seven unanswered kills. The defense stepped up too as the Wolverines forced two attack errors. In a flash, Michigan reduced an eleven-point deficit to one.
“I think in the first couple sets I wasn’t swinging aggressively and that kind of got me into trouble,” Jones said. “But (Rosen) came up to us, told us that we need to start banging out of trouble, and that’s what I did. Most of the time, you get some good touches off of that, and so I just went up and swung away.”
Despite the Wolverines’ best efforts, a Mruzik service error ended the rally and handed the Spartans the set.
The third set was just as competitive as the first two. As each team was trading pancakes, service aces and diving stops, neither the Wolverines nor the Spartans could gain any traction before Franklin took matters into her own hands and led Michigan State to an 18-14 lead.
After a timeout, several mistakes by the Spartans led the Wolverines back into the set. With the score tied at 20, Mruzik, Pertofsky and Jones all scored kills. Pertofsky’s service ace was the icing on the cake as Michigan won the set, 25-22.
“(Pertofsky’s) serves are just so dangerous,” Rosen said. “She moves it around, it’s very unpredictable, so she gets a lot of tape rollers because she hits it so hard and it’s got this little spin that crawls over the tape, so it’s not unusual, but it’s something you can’t really practice for.”
After a closely contested start to the fourth set, Kabengele and Franklin put the Spartans on their backs as they went up, 14-10, behind a series of dominant kills. The Wolverines were behind, but once again battled back to tie the score at 17. It would stay tied all the way through the 26-point mark. With match point on the line, Michigan doubled down, forcing two service errors by Michigan State to clinch the victory.
After two hard-fought matches against Minnesota and Michigan State, the Wolverines won’t have it any easier as they head to Lincoln and Iowa City to play two highly anticipated Big Ten matchups. From now on, it’s an uphill climb.
“This conference is gnarly, I mean it’s just a physical conference,” Rosen said. “You want to respect everybody but certainly not fear anybody.”