The Michigan volleyball team traveled to Columbus on Saturday night having won only one set in its last four games. But after losing a heartbreaker to Ohio State on Oct. 24, when two points decided every set, revenge was the only motivation the Wolverines needed to get back on track.
Saturday, Michigan (7-9 Big Ten, 17-10 overall) came out and swept the 14th-ranked Buckeyes (10-6, 21-7), 3-0.
The Wolverines didn’t show any hesitation in a hostile St. John Arena packed with 4,248 Buckeye faithful, coming out of the gate on a 9-2 run and eventually winning the first set, 25-15.
Michigan’s strong start was aided by a dominant service game from freshman libero Jenna Lerg and her sister, senior defensive specialist Lindsey Lerg. The Wolverines won 70 percent of the points in which one of the Lergs was serving, and were able to limit Ohio State to a -.029 hitting percentage in the set.
“We absolutely served them off the court,” said sophomore defensive specialist Caroline Knop.
In the second set, Michigan found itself down 24-22, but was able to hold off six Buckeye set points to win the set, 31-29. Jenna Lerg, playing libero for the first time all season, helped the cause with two key digs late in the match that kept the Wolverines alive. Junior middle blocker Abby Cole finished the task with an emphatic spike that ended the set.
Michigan coach Mark Rosen was pleased with the poise and aggressive play that his team showed in the second set. He also pointed to the leadership of Knop and senior setter Carly Warner as being the difference late in the set.
“When you’re at that point, you’re playing with no fear,” Knop said.
Michigan, led by Knop's team-high 15 kills, then rolled to victory behind a 25-16 third-set trouncing.
The Wolverines had lost six of their previous seven Big Ten matchups, with all six of those losses coming against ranked opponents.
This time, late in sets, Michigan stayed strong, which Rosen attributed to better ball control, and much better execution.
“We were clutch tonight,” Knop said. “When we played them at home, we weren’t clutch.”
The win is Michigan's first over a ranked opponent all year and was a needed boost to the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament résumé. Two more weeks remain in Michigan's regular season, including four more crucial Big Ten matchups.
“This team really wants to get going here, get in the NCAA Tournament, and make a run in the NCAA Tournament,” Rosen said.
The rivalry win came at just the right time for the struggling Wolverines, who will need to be at the top of their game for their upcoming matchups, which come against No. 5 Penn State, No. 8 Nebraska and No. 17 Illinois.
“That’s why you play in the Big Ten,” Knop said. “You’re here for the big games, big atmospheres, and big wins. And that’s what we got here tonight.”
Surely, if the Wolverines are going to earn an NCAA berth, a few more big wins like this one are in order.