The Michigan volleyball team’s senior middle blocker Jess Robinson approached the net as senior setter Maddie Dowd fed her a perfect set. Robinson skied up and slammed down the kill to a chorus of cheers, setting the tone for a dominant match for the Wolverines.
On Friday night, Michigan (8-1 overall) played like a well-oiled machine as it defeated Mississippi State (7-3), 3-1. It was powered by its strong serving, notching eight aces on the night, keeping the Bulldogs on their back heels.
“I think we really came out strong, something we’ve been talking about all this year,” redshirt junior libero Hannah Grant said. “And I think we did a really good job of just jumping in, giving them a lot of pressure, and I think they felt it right out of the gate at the beginning of the game.”
From the opening serve, the Wolverines controlled the match. After Robinson’s match-opening kill, Michigan jumped out to an early 13-6 lead. The Wolverines were able to establish the quick offense in the middle through Robinson and Dowd. Along with the quick offense, four combined aces from junior setter Scottee Johnson, junior opposite hitter Kendall Murray and Grant fueled the run and helped Michigan win the set, 25-16.
The second set saw pure dominance from Michigan. The serving excellence continued, and — coupled with a 9-0 and a 4-0 scoring run — the Wolverines handily cruised to a 2-0 lead, taking the second set 25-8.
“We were really good from the service line tonight,” Mruzik said. “And I think us serving so well affected them. They weren’t able to run as fast of a tempo as they wanted to… (so) it was a little bit easier for us as blockers to understand, like ‘OK, they can’t run this person because the setters pull off in that,’ so I thought the serve was our first defense in setting up the block.”
Michigan put on a clinic at the net, outblocking Mississippi State 16-6 — and holding it to a paltry .047 hitting percentage. Sophomore middle blocker Jacque Boney had a career-best nine blocks, and the Wolverines had ten blocks in the third set alone.
Despite the blocking in the third set, Michigan wasn’t able to counter an increase in the Bulldogs’ energy. The pace of play sped up and the offensive efficiency plummeted, with the Wolverines’ hitting percentage dropping to barely over .100 in the set, later losing the set itself, 25-22.
“We talked a lot in the locker room about just when things happen, ‘How do you respond?’ ” Rosen said. “And I thought they responded perfectly. They came out and our efficiency went back up. Toward late in the fourth set, we were hitting .530, you know so from hitting a little over .100 in the third set. That’s a good response.”
Michigan came out of the break attacking with renewed energy at the net. The fourth set began with a series of blocks from senior May Pertofsky, Mruzik and Boney that boosted the Wolverines to an early 7-1 lead.
The defense picked up, with players scrambling and saving nearly every attempted kill. Each scramble play extended the rally, giving Michigan the opportunity to tally a kill in its next opportunity.
“We made some scramble plays where we’re just keeping the ball off the floor,” Rosen said. “And every time you do that, you make it tough for the other team to get kills. They feel like they have to do a little bit more, and all of a sudden you start seeing errors, you start seeing them try a little bit harder angle, a little bit sharper. That pursuit is really important. It just makes it tough on the other team physically, but also mentally.”
Defense fuels offense, and the Wolverines capitalized on the extended rallies with big swings. Michigan closed off the final set hitting at a .478 clip to win it 25-16.
The preparation the Wolverines put into the match all week paid off, resulting in a relatively easy victory over the Bulldogs’ fast-paced offense.
“We’ve done a really good job this whole non-conference schedule of preparing for teams and just going from night to night, which is going to be a great thing for us to have during the Big Ten season,” Mruzik said. “And Mississippi State’s a really good team, so I thought we did a really good job tonight of just coming out and showing them what Big Ten volleyball is.”
Michigan took care of business against the Bulldogs, proving it can handle non-conference teams. Now, the Wolverines hope that momentum can translate into the conference season.