Stopping Dana Rettke is a tall task — both literally and figuratively.
No. 7 Wisconsin’s 6-foot-8 sophomore middle blocker challenged No. 12 Michigan (18-4 overall, 7-4 Big Ten) all night, and the injury-hampered Wolverines were unable to answer in a 25-18, 16-25, 22-25, 25-21, 11-15 loss at Crisler Center on Friday night.
Rettke, the reigning AVCA Freshman of the Year, came into the match leading the Big Ten in attack percentage. She continued her efficient stretch on Friday by leading all players with a staggering .571 attack percentage. The 2017 First Team All-American selection guided Wisconsin (15-4, 8-3) to the win by committing just one error on 35 swings while putting down 21 kills.
Rettke’s height allowed her to take advantage of effective attack angles from the middle of the court throughout the match. When she wasn’t taking an approach in front of the setter, she was spreading out Michigan’s defense by using the slide attack — an approach style where the middle blocker runs laterally until she’s behind the setter and then jumps up off one foot. By approaching from behind the setter, Rettke made Michigan’s defense commit to double-blocking one pin or the other before Wisconsin’s setter even released the ball.
“Our game plan to defend the slide and the middles in general was to serve the ball very aggressively so that they couldn’t set it to them,” said senior libero Jenna Lerg. “At times, we executed that very well. Other times, they had some chances and they took them. On the plays you can’t stop, you roll it back and get the next one.”
Midway through the opening set, the Wolverines trailed Wisconsin by three points. Coming out of the media timeout, Michigan’s trio of junior setter MacKenzi Welsh, senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt and freshman outside hitter Paige Jones spearheaded a 13-3 run to close the first set. At the end of the opening frame, Skjodt had nine kills on 18 swings with only one error, Jones had four kills on nine errorless swings and Welsh led all players with 10 assists.
Skjodt’s nine kills in the first set marked the beginning of one of her best performances of the season. She finished the match with 27 kills, her second-highest tally of the season.
“Carly has been our most dominant player in all aspects of the game for the entire season,” Lerg said. “We can’t really try to ride her 71 swings against a team like Wisconsin, but I think she did a great job with those 71 attempts — she does everything she can to put the team on her back. I’m honored to play next to her, and I’m excited to see what else she can do this season.”
“Carly is a warrior right now,” Rosen added. “She’s definitely taking way more swings than we’d like and way more swings than she’d like. She’s doing everything she can right now. Carly’s a great competitor, a great leader, and a great volleyball player. She’s trying to carry as much of the load as possible.”
After the emphatic first-set run, Michigan fell behind early in the second frame. In an attempt to recapture the momentum, the Wolverines took some aggressive swings — thus leaving them more prone to error. Instead of pummeling kills into the hardwood of Crisler Center, Michigan committed eight attack errors compared to Wisconsin’s two, and the Badgers outhit the Wolverines .448 to .125. Despite a handful of dramatic diving digs from Lerg, the Wolverines dropped the set, 25-16.
In the third set, Michigan’s ineffective execution yielded another low attack percentage — this time just .049 — and Wisconsin took advantage once again. The Wolverines found themselves really missing the size and impact of two injured front-row starters: 6-foot-3 redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker and 6-foot-1 junior opposite hitter Sydney Wetterstrom. Before going down with their respective injuries, Crocker led the team in blocks and Wetterstrom provided a reliable back-set option for Welsh. Perhaps most importantly, their court leadership as upperclassmen seemed absent in the loss against Wisconsin — without their presence, freshman middle blocker Kayla Bair and redshirt sophomore opposite Ellie Brooks were called upon in their place. Brooks and Bair weren’t an efficient duo on Friday night; they combined for an attack percentage of -.071, meaning the sum of their errors exceeded the sum of their kills.
At this point, Rosen is focused on how to make the most of what Michigan will be working with for the foreseeable future. Without timetables on Crocker and Wetterstrom, the Wolverines need to concentrate on how they can tackle their upcoming slate of Big Ten matches while they remain sidelined.
“We can’t focus on what we don’t have — we have to focus on what we have and how we’re going to get better,” Rosen said. “I look at it as opportunities — (Brooks and Bair) are having opportunities right now (on the court) and we’re having opportunities to develop them, but we need to take the opportunities. We can’t throw hands in the air; we have to get better.”
When the Badgers jumped out to an 8-1 lead to open the fourth set, Michigan spent most of the frame chipping away at the early deficit. After a Wisconsin coach’s challenge revealed a net foul on Carly Skjodt, the Wolverines knew they needed to come up with an answer for Rettke before the match slipped away.
With the end of the set nearing, Michigan turned to sophomore middle blocker Kiara Shannon for a handful of big kills. By using different approaches and tempos to set the ball to Shannon, the Wolverines opened up hitting angles around Rettke and her Badger counterparts. Although Shannon finished the match with just eight kills, she made her presence felt on defense by tying her career-high with seven blocks. Michigan battled back relentlessly, eventually trimming Wisconsin’s lead to just three points at 21-18.
Then, with Carly Skjodt at the service line, the Wolverines pulled off the improbable — Michigan won an astounding seven consecutive points while completely turning the momentum of the entire match in the process. The run was underscored by the sights and sounds of the final point of set four: Skjodt’s back row kill — which was accompanied by the tune of the traditional “Let’s! Go! Blue!” from the home fans in correspondence to the bump, set and spike — sent Crisler Center into a frenzy and forced a decisive fifth set.
But to the Wolverines’ demise, Wisconsin came out firing on all cylinders in the fifth set. The Badgers put together a potent offensive attack in the final frame, posting a .304 attack percentage in comparison to Michigan’s .174 clip. After a hard-fought battle, Wisconsin came away with a 15-11 victory in the tiebreaking set. When the dust settled, the Badgers’ unrivaled size and physicality triumphed over the Wolverines’ predictable offense.
“The bottom line is we didn’t have enough balance to our offense,” Rosen said. “We were way too one dimensional.”