With Thanksgiving now in the rearview mirror, the end of November means one thing for Division I women’s volleyball: the Big Dance is upon us.
This Friday, the No. 18 Michigan women’s volleyball team (22-9 overall, 11-9 Big Ten) will travel to Pittsburgh to take on unseeded Navy (23-8 overall, 13-3 Patriot League) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Friday’s clash features two programs that took drastically different paths to the Steel City. Though Michigan finished seventh in the Big Ten standings, its fourth consecutive 20-win season proved strong enough to earn an at-large bid. The Big Ten has seven teams in the field — more than any other conference in the nation.
Despite being seeded outside of the top-16, the Wolverines still enter the tournament as one of the most polished teams in the field of 64. With 2017 All-American Carly Skjodt leading the charge on offense and senior libero Jenna Lerg anchoring the defense, opponents have struggled to find a weak link in Michigan’s starting lineup.
After beginning the season unranked, the Wolverines clawed their way up to as high as No. 12 in the AVCA Coaches Poll before closing out the regular season ranked 18th in the poll and 21st in RPI.
The team lost redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker to an ankle sprain and junior opposite Sydney Wetterstrom to an undisclosed injury for the entirety of October, but both starters made their way back into the fold during November. Their absence gave Michigan coach Mark Rosen a chance to develop young talent under authentic match conditions, which could be a key component of the team’s potential tournament run.
On the other hand, Navy will be making its first tournament appearance in program history after securing the Patriot League’s autobid. The Mids guaranteed themselves a spot in the Big Dance by upending top-seeded American University in the conference championship game behind a match-high 25 kills from sophomore outside hitter Maddi Sgattoni.
Under the guidance of first-year head coach Paco Labrador, Navy has relied on Sgattoni to spearhead its offense all year long — she has recorded 1,252 attack attempts, while none of her teammates have even eclipsed 725. Though she has regularly posted high kill tallies, quantity hasn’t yielded quality for Sgattoni, who finished the regular season with an inefficient attack percentage of just .181.
In order to compare the Wolverines and the Mids on the same scale, take a look at each team’s result against Rutgers, one of their common opponents during the regular season. The Scarlet Knights are 1-99 — yes, you read that correctly — against Big Ten opponents since joining the conference in 2014, with their lone triumph coming against Maryland in 2015. Rutgers defeated Navy in four sets on Sept. 8, outscoring the Mids by 17 in the process. Meanwhile, Michigan trounced Rutgers to the tune of a 3-0 sweep on Sept. 28, while holding the Scarlet Knights to under 15 points in two of the three sets. The discrepancy in each team’s outcome against the same opponent in a 20-day span shows a wide gap in talent between the rosters.
Navy comes into the tournament slotted at 90th in national RPI, 69 spots behind the Wolverines. The Mids are the Patriot League’s only team ranked in the top 100 of the RPI rankings, while 16 of Michigan’s regular season opponents — 13 of which compete in the Big Ten — finished in the top 100.
The big takeaway? The Wolverines, who have made the tournament in 17 of Rosen’s 20 seasons at the helm of the program, are far more prepared for the tournament’s level of competition and its accompanying pressure than their rookie opponent.
When push comes to shove, Michigan’s first round fate will lie in its ability to keep Sgattoni in check while simultaneously varying its own offensive attack.