With a trio of starters sidelined due to injury, the No. 12 Michigan volleyball team (18-5 overall, 7-5 Big Ten) struggled to find consistency in a 25-27, 10-25, 20-25 loss to No. 3 Minnesota (18-2, 12-0) on Saturday night.
Redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker (ankle), junior setter MacKenzi Welsh (concussion) and junior opposite Sydney Wetterstrom (undisclosed) were all unable to suit up against the Golden Gophers, who came into the match riding a 12-game winning streak dating back to Sept. 9.
On Saturday, freshman middle blocker Kayla Bair and junior opposite Katarina Glavinic assumed the roles of Crocker and Wetterstrom, respectively, while the tandem of junior setter Katerina Rocafort and senior setter Maddy Abbott ran the offense in place of Welsh. In a sport where momentum is a driving force, the Wolverines’ makeshift lineup put them at a crucial disadvantage.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but I think we handled it very well,” said freshman outside hitter Paige Jones. “We just figured out this morning that Welsh wasn’t going to play, so this morning’s practice was when we first got our setters going. Rocafort hasn’t set in three years, but I think Abbott and Rocafort came in and did a great job in their roles and everyone else did a fantastic job. Everyone is working hard to get healthy and get back.”
Added Michigan coach Mark Rosen: “Tonight, we were forced into being very different. Different is what we were dealt, but at the same time, I think we need to focus on the way we play when we play well. I feel for those kids — they were put into a situation and it’s tough. Nobody wants to have as much unexpected change as we had today.”
Welsh’s injury in particular caused trouble for Michigan. In an offense that has taken a leap forward from last year, Welsh has been the puppet master behind the success. Her chemistry with senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt, Jones and the rest of the offense has helped tremendously with the Wolverines’ efficiency. Because Michigan lacks a backup setter, Rosen opted to use a 6-2 offense — a system that features two setters who take turns running the offense depending on which one is in the back row at a given moment — instead of the team’s usual system. On Saturday night, Rosen turned to Abbott, who has only played a limited role as a serving specialist this season, and Rocafort, who hasn’t run an offense in three years.
“Rocafort and Abbot had to go from roles they’re comfortable with to roles they’re not comfortable with,” Rosen said. “Rocafort hasn’t set in three years, and Abbott hasn’t set at all this year, so it’s a tough position for them to be in. The situation forced them into that, and I thought they did a great job. All things considered, they gave us what they had. I’m proud of them for that and I’m proud of our team for the way they handled adversity as best they could.”
Despite having the odds stacked against them, the Wolverines looked ready for the challenge coming out of the gates. Without Welsh at the helm, Abbott and Rocafort guided Michigan’s offense to a 20-16 lead to start the match. After seeing Skjodt take an astounding 71 swings in Friday night’s loss to Wisconsin, Jones knew that Abbott and Rocafort would rely heavily on her production against the Gophers.
“I was ready to embrace the pressure,” Jones said. “I know my teammates trust me and I know I trust them, so I just go out every game and do what they need me to do. Coach told us to come out, swing at the ball, and go for everything without holding back. It was a tough battle tonight.”
Jones did just that in an effort where she posted one of the best stat lines of her young career. At the end of the first set, Jones boasted a staggering .417 attack percentage after tallying 11 kills on 24 swings with just one hitting error.
But Michigan failed to capitalize on a pair of set points and a block by Minnesota’s Regan Pittman — a 6-foot-5 middle blocker — gave the Gophers a 27-25 victory in the opening frame. In addition to her set-clinching block, Pittman finished the match with 10 kills on just 18 swings, many of which came in the form of “slides” and “shoots” — volleyball terminology for shorter, faster sets to a middle blocker in different locations along the net. Pittman did most of her damage by utilizing a lateral, one-legged approach from behind the setter.
“We try to go get out early, get our feet set, stop in front of them and take away shots so we can defend around it,” Jones said.
On Saturday, Pittman’s powerful arm-swing and unrivaled vertical leap proved to be too much for the Wolverines to handle. Despite being unable to close the set on a high note, Rosen was proud of his team’s execution in the opening frame.
“We played great in the first set,” Rosen said. “We were aggressive, we were going after it, and I thought our attackers were really going for hands and kills whenever they could to put the ball away.”
Following a closely contested opening set, the second frame was an entirely different story. The Gophers floored the gas pedal from the get-go, steamrolling Michigan en route to a final score of 25-10. Minnesota’s potent offensive attack delivered a .462 attack percentage, while the Wolverines’ abysmal performance led to a minus-.059 clip. On defense, the Golden Gophers out-blocked Michigan 6-0 in the second set and 14-0 during the course of the match.
“In the second set, we just flinched a little bit,” Rosen said. “It let a little air out of the sails when we couldn’t pull out that first set. That’s something we need to get better at — no matter what lineup is on the floor, we want to keep our level of energy and our level of execution consistent. We dropped down some and that was unfortunate.”
Although the third set was closer than the second, the Wolverines never held the lead. Minnesota opened the frame with a 4-0 spurt and never looked back. Perhaps the lone bright spot of the set was senior libero Jenna Lerg’s performance. Lerg finished the match with a team-high 19 digs while no other Wolverine notched double-figures. She also made her mark from the service line as the only Michigan player with multiple aces. But when it was all said and done, the Gophers came out on top, 25-20.
“After the second set, we talked about the fact that we have nothing to lose,” Jones said. “They’re ranked third in the nation and they were up two sets, so the pressure was on them to finish. We had nothing to lose so we wanted to go all out in the third set.”
At a glance, the numbers indicate that Minnesota was able to dictate the physicality of the match because Michigan’s middle blockers were ineffective all night long. Freshman Kayla Bair, filling in for Crocker, finished the night with a minus-.143 attack percentage after recording more errors than kills. Bair’s counterpart, sophomore middle blocker Kiara Shannon, struggled mightily as well, posting just two kills on the night despite taking 16 swings. Numbers don’t lie — the Wolverines lost a key facet of their offensive attack when it became evident that their middle blockers were having a tough time adjusting to Welsh’s absence.
“With two new setters, the hardest thing to set is anything quick (to the middle),” Rosen said. “We were trying to keep it basic and get good swings. I don’t think that was for any other reason than the fact that we had new players. We only had 45 minutes today to work on them connecting, so I think (Bair and Shannon’s inefficiency) was by design tonight to try to keep it simple.”
Once the Gophers picked up on this fact, Minnesota was able to commit two blockers to Skjodt and Jones on the outside pin. As a result, Skjodt was held to just eight kills on 37 swings one night after registering 27 kills against the Badgers.
Outside of Lerg’s dominant performance in the back row, the rest of Michigan’s defense had a tough night. Without their normal system in place, the Wolverines looked lost — communication errors, a new serve receive rotation and unfamiliar combinations of players prevented them from finding any consistency in the back row.
“Unfortunately, we had different personnel on the floor in different positions, so defensively, we dropped down as well,” Rosen said.
At the end of the night, Michigan’s makeshift lineup simply couldn’t get the job done against one of the nation’s top teams. With Crocker, Wetterstrom, and Welsh all watching from the bench, the Wolverines looked helpless when trying to provide an answer for an offense that boasted a .364 clip on the night.
“The players are doing the best they can, but that’s why you have a system,” Rosen said. “It helps to organize your play and create consistency within your execution. When you change the system at the last minute, you can’t expect (the execution) will stay the same. Tonight, we were forced into being very different. Different is what we were dealt, but at the same time, we need to focus on the way we play when we play well.”