Out of the corner of her eye, junior setter MacKenzi Welsh saw Penn State’s middle blocker take a half-step towards senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt, Michigan’s most dangerous offensive weapon. With the Wolverine volleyball team trailing two sets to none, everyone inside State College’s iconic Rec Hall expected Welsh to set the ball to Skjodt on the outside pin.
Instead, Welsh brought her hands above her head, flicked her wrists and stealthily delivered a perfect set to junior opposite Katarina Glavinic, the lone Wolverine attacker behind her. Welsh’s decision had the potential to be brilliant — she fooled the Nittany Lions’ middle blocker badly — if not for Nia Reed, Penn State’s standout fifth-year outside hitter. Reed set her feet, timed her jump perfectly and blocked Glavinic’s swing directly into the ground.
Reed’s towering block to open the third set tells you everything you need to know about Wednesday’s match. When the dust settled, Reed’s 16 kills and five blocks helped No. 7 Penn State (21-6 overall, 12-5 Big Ten) bury the Wolverines, 12-25, 23-25, 15-25.
Stagnant. Lifeless. Idle. Take your pick — each word sums up Michigan’s offensive performance. The 19th-ranked Wolverines (19-9, 8-9) managed to produce just a .107 attack percentage on the night, a staggering 254 points short of Penn State's .361 clip.
“We knew we had to go find a way to get kills,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “That was our biggest struggle tonight. We averaged nine kills per set, and that’s not enough to win a match.”
Coming into the match, the Wolverines knew the Nittany Lions’ defense would pose a challenge. Penn State entered the week leading the Big Ten in blocks per set and ranked second in opposing attack percentage. Wednesday was no different, as Michigan fell victim to the Nittany Lions’ defensive dominance.
“They were great defensively,” Rosen said. “We didn’t have our (attack attempts) blocked a lot, but they got a lot of touches at the net, which let them be really good in transition. We had an idea of what we wanted to do offensively but we didn’t execute it well.”
Welsh sought one-on-one matchups similar to Glavinic’s all night long, but Penn State’s block seemed to be waiting regardless of where she went with the ball. It out-blocked the Wolverines, 9-6, despite Welsh’s ability to find single-block matchups for a handful of her teammates including Glavinic, redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker and sophomore middle blocker Kiara Shannon.
“(Welsh) did a great job putting our hitters in a position to score,” Rosen said. “But some of them didn’t execute. For the first set and a half, she put a lot of hitters in one-on-one situations (where they were blocked). Once that happened, those hitters were less respected by Penn State’s defense, and (Penn State) was able to go key in on other hitters, which made it tough on them.”
When Glavinic, Crocker and Shannon — a trio that combined for just seven kills on 35 attempts while registering seven errors — failed to capitalize on their one-on-one matchups, the Nittany Lions were able to commit two blockers to the outside pin in an effort to shut down Skjodt and freshman outside hitter Paige Jones.
After scoring a mere 12 points in a dormant opening-set effort, Michigan faced a 17-13 deficit in the second frame when Skjodt stepped to the service line. After a kill from Jones closed the gap to three, Skjodt dialed up the heat on her float serve. Three consecutive aces later, it appeared as though Skjodt’s service run breathed new life into a team in dire need of momentum. The instant spark, which forced Penn State to use its first timeout of the match, matched Skjodt’s career-high ace tally and tied the score at 17 apiece.
“Something we talked about after the first set was serving tougher,” Rosen said. “They were in system, and boy, you’re not going to stop that team (when in system). We had to force them out of system, and I thought we did a great job of that in the second set, especially on that service run.”
Skjodt delivered on her coach’s request, and Welsh chimed in with an ace of her own a few points later to give the Wolverines their first lead of the set at 21-20. After splitting the next two points, a would-be block wiggled through a gap between Crocker and Jones and fell to the hardwood. But Welsh was whistled for a double-touch on the subsequent point — giving the Nittany Lions a 23-22 lead which they wouldn’t surrender again.
Losing tight sets has become a recurring issue for Michigan, a team that has dropped all four of its sets decided by two points in the month of November.
Led by senior libero Jenna Lerg, the Wolverines handled the ball well throughout the match. Welsh rarely had to leave her target area to retrieve an errant pass or dive to keep the second touch alive. To Michigan’s demise, its offense was simply never able to break through.
“It’s frustrating to be able to control the ball really well on the first contact and then not be able to put kills on the floor,” Rosen said. “If we don’t terminate in single blocker matchups, that’s a problem. Tonight, we didn’t do that.”