The collective look of surprise from everyone except the Wolverines could be seen when Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen opted to pull career starter Mackenzi Welsh for freshman Erin O’Leary against Maryland during a 3-0 loss on Wednesday night.
When Welsh went down with a concussion Oct. 27 against Minnesota, Rosen instead went with senior setter Maddy Abbott. But this time, he thought, was different. O’Leary was ready.
The setter position is essential for an offense. Really, any position in volleyball is, but the offense runs through the setter so it was a gamble to play O’Leary, who had no collegiate experience prior to her debut.
“It’s a key position for us, and Erin hasn’t played this year,” Rosen said. “And we knew she was an option, and the biggest thing, we didn’t think we had any rhythm offensively.
“We felt like at that point, if things aren’t going our way, our offense isn’t clicking, we’re not scoring in any position really, we felt like, ‘Hey, let’s try something different,’ and I thought Erin did a great job.”
The risk of having to play a new setter, especially in a close-knit set, was sparked by the lack of production with Welsh and the lineup placed around her. Nothing seemed to be working. Kills that would normally be blocked — or at the minimum, tipped — were spearing through Michigan’s backline.
And the pressure stemming from the ineptitude of the defense forced the offense to play out of character. Middle blockers, left unguarded, couldn’t convert, and three players ended with negative attack percentages.
“I think offensively, you can look at the stat sheet,” Rosen said. “We didn’t put up anywhere close to a good enough number, but I still think that came from the defense, that came from the tone we set from the very beginning of just not playing very hard on defense.
“… I just thought from the very beginning, our point scoring, when we’re scoring and we’re playing defense, was super soft. We didn’t make good effort after balls. We were letting them get soft kills.”
It was the look of a team that had expected things to just happen instead of making them happen. And that set the tone for the Terrapins to dominate, having developed confidence and momentum early on.
That’s where O’Leary came in.
As a player, despite having never seen the court before, she has a level of confidence stemming from her volleyball background. Senior libero Jenna Lerg noted O’Leary has played her entire life, and on the court, it showed.
Checking in for the first time to a late-set deficit is no easy task. Michigan was down 21-16 when the appeal of trying things differently came to play. And the tonal shift from the setter change showed immediately.
Of course, the change in momentum was helped by five errors from Maryland — four attack errors and a service error — but O’Leary chose to build on it. During the run, she commanded the offense, giving her hitters a chance to make plays.
One, in particular, came when the Wolverines were down, 23-21. With the ball to her, O’Leary evaluated her options. The outside hitter and middle blockers made their way to the net. Instead, she chose freshman outside hitter Paige Jones who was coming from the back row.
The attack was dug and returned, but it changed the tone. Michigan was cohesive. It was aggressive. It was willing to take chances. And that chance was O’Leary.
Despite Jones’ hit being returned, the defense was not set, and O’Leary and sophomore middle blocker Kiara Shannon took advantage of that with a quick kill to bring the deficit to one.
“I think she came in and not only I think setting-wise did a good job,” Rosen said. “I think she’s a very tactical setter, she makes very good decisions. I thought she brought a great personality.
O’Leary’s efforts weren’t enough to swing the tides for the entire set, though. In her one lapse, she passed to Shannon again in the middle, but an easy block settled the set, 30-28. The momentum from losing that close set carried over — the defensive struggle that led to O’Leary’s entry led also to her withdrawal and determined the match.