The No. 25 Michigan volleyball team wasn’t expected to win a set coming into Sunday afternoon’s matchup against No. 5 Wisconsin. But, the Wolverines’ performance in the first set — due to Michigan’s aggressive attacking — started to reshape that narrative.
After securing the first set, a win seemed feasible, though the Badgers didn’t give up easily. The Wolverines’ attacking success, led by senior opposite hitter May Pertofsky and junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik, wasn’t enough to win a set following the first.
Michigan senior middle blocker Jess Robinson is one of the best hitters in the country, but the Wisconsin blockers came into the game prepared.
“(Robinson) only had 13 sets tonight, which is a really low number, but it wasn’t because we didn’t pass the ball well enough,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “We could have set her but they committed two blockers on her. … So it’s also one of the things that helps May (Pertofsky) score and score from other positions.”
Pertofsky and Mruzik stepped up when Robinson was shut down at the net. Robinson ended the game with only 13 attack attempts and six kills, while Pertofsky took 31 attempts with 16 kills, and Mruzik had 39 attempts and 15 kills.
The win in the first set came from communication. Michigan worked well as a team in certain areas, from remaining tough against a top opponent to maintaining offensive aggression in every set. The Wolverines came into the game with a fierce mentality that propelled them to be competitive throughout all four sets.
“I think we’ve talked a lot as a team about being gritty and staying aggressive,” Pertofsky said. “We have practiced staying aggressive in situations that maybe we feel like we shouldn’t. And I think we’ve shown that we’ve been practicing and that it’s gotten better for us.”
Pertosfky and Mruzik’s aggressive playmaking at the net kept the team competitive within each set following their 25-22 win in the first. They nearly matched the Badgers in kills, with 58 to Wisconsin’s 59. Michigan was also able to take more attack attempts, with 144 to the Badgers’ 125. Wisconsin managed to pull away on the stat sheet when it came to attack percentage, at a 0.360 success rate to the Wolverines’ at 0.236, which the team was proud of.
“We had (an attacking rate of) 0.236 which is a good number, it’s just a team that’s big and physical defensively,” Rosen said of the Badgers. “We’re trying to keep them below that and again, that’s where we’re a couple points short.”
Following the first set, Wisconsin took note of Michigan’s offensive success at the net and consequently placed more of its focus on blocking. In the second, the Wolverines only saw 10 kills to the Badgers’ 17. This led to the loss of the set, which was also the case for the final two sets. But, Pertofsky and Mruzik continued to attack up front, creating a back and forth style of play between the teams.
This initial success against the Badgers came as somewhat of a surprise following a loss to unranked Indiana. Michigan matched Wisconsin point by point for most of the match which was a clear indicator of the Wolverines’ potential. But, with the end of Michigan’s season approaching and the remaining games falling within the Big Ten conference, the Wolverines need to maintain that energy they started out with in the first set against the Badgers.
And, if teams continue to shut down Robinson, then Pertofsky and Mruzik will need to have similar performances at the net, outmatching teams in attacks for Michigan to stand a chance. But, even more importantly, they’ll need to start outmatching teams in kills. The duo can make up for Robinson’s lack of production when teams concentrate their defense on the middle blocker.
No. 6 Ohio State is the Wolverines’ next opponent, and if they want to secure a top-10 win, they’ll need to play each set with the same ferocity they had in the first against the Badgers.
“I think (the grit and resilience in the first set) shows everybody the thing we all know, and that’s that we’re capable and we are more than able to beat teams like Wisconsin and Ohio State,” Mruzik said. “I think the first set really, really demonstrated our grit.”
Michigan needs to start maintaining that grit for longer in its matches if it’s looking to move into the postseason, and the final eight games will provide plenty of chances to show the Wolverines’ grit and resilience over a full match.