Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen’s message to his team Saturday night before its four-set victory over Pittsburgh was “learn as you go.” The undefeated Wolverines faced their toughest test of the season against an experienced Panthers team.
“We don’t have 30 matches we can watch on (Pittsburgh)," said junior middle blocker Abby Cole. “So we just learned as we went and we let up a little bit in set two, but we finished strong.”
After a hard-fought victory in the first set and a drubbing at the hands of the Panthers in the second, the Wolverines (9-0) came out in a new offensive system after the intermission.
Rosen switched from two setters to one, allowing him to add another player somewhere else on the court. The move gave Michigan either another attack option on offense or an extra back-row player to help shore up its defense and passing, both of which struggled in the first two sets.
The change became the difference in the game, as the Wolverines won the final two sets of the match in commanding fashion.
The first set quickly turned into an intense back-and-forth affair featuring 14 ties and seven lead changes. Trailing 18-17, Rosen took a timeout to try and slow Pittsburgh (7-2) down.
The break from the action worked, as the Wolverines captured the momentum immediately following the timeout and went on a 4-0 run to take a 21-18 lead. Pittsburgh battled back to tie the game at 21, but Michigan answered with a 4-1 run to take the set, 25-22.
The Wolverines seemed primed to continue their surge straight through the second set, but the Panthers went on an 8-2 run following a timeout to take a 9-7 lead.
They would never relinquish the lead, winning the second set by eight points, 25-17.
It was just the sixth set Michigan has lost all season, and the first in its last three games.
Though Michigan lost 22 of the last 32 points in the second set, the Wolverines recovered in the third. Neither team could open up more than a two-point lead until Michigan went up 19-16 later in the set. The Wolverines continued to keep Pittsburgh at bay for the rest of the third set, taking it by a score of 25-22.
Sophomore opposite hitter Katherine Mahlke and senior setter Carly Warner both took full advantage of the increased roles they played under the new offensive system in the final two sets. Warner, who replaced freshman setter Maddy Abbott on the court to close out the match, provided assists on 19 of the 25 points the Wolverines scored in the third set, accounting for all of Michigan’s kills.
“Nineteen kills is a lot of kills for one set," Rosen said. “When you’re scoring 19 of your 25 points on flat-out kills, that’s a giant number. You’re normally going to get 13-14 kills per set, so that means the offense was running really well.”
Warner served up seven of those 19 assists to Mahlke, who put on a dominant performance in the third set. At halftime, after deciding to switch to the 5-1 offense that featured Mahlke more heavily, Rosen challenged her to get more out of her spot. And she rose to the challenge. Mahlke led the Wolverines’ offense in the second half, recording eight kills while hitting .727.
Sophomore defensive specialist Caroline Knop put an exclamation point on the third set with her 13th kill of the night. Knop finished the match with a team-leading 17 kills.
This time Michigan successfully carried over its the momentum from its previous set victory. The Wolverines led nearly the entire fourth set which was highlighted by an 8-0 run. Cole finished the night and sealed the victory with her 14th kill.
Despite its perfect start to the season, Michigan still feels it hasn't peaked yet.
“What’s great is we could literally get so much better,” Knop said. “There’s so much room for improvement, and that’s why we’re so excited about this season and it’s fantastic. We have a legitimate chance to win a national championship.”