The third set of the Michigan volleyball team’s match Wednesday proved to be the culmination of the Wolverines’ game plan. While the first two sets were executed well, the last went perfectly, and Michigan (5-2 Big Ten, 16-3 overall) cruised to a 12-point margin of victory in the third set to secure a sweep of Northwestern.
Throughout the match, the 18th-ranked Wolverines made it a focus to serve tough and get the Wildcats out of their system. Big Ten Network analyst Beth Karpiak — a former Michigan captain — made that point on the broadcast, and Michigan coach Mark Rosen echoed the sentiments of his former player after the match.
“That was definitely the key to the match,” Rosen said. “(Northwestern) is a much better team in system than they are out of system. So we felt like if we could get them out of system, that would certainly benefit us, and we did a really good job of that. I thought our servers did a great job, put a lot of pressure on them.”
Ultimately, this game plan could not have been executed without the help of its seven freshmen. One of those freshmen is setter MacKenzi Welsh, who garnered the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award for last week’s performances against Maryland and Ohio State. Wednesday night in Evanston, Welsh turned in another impressive performance, assisting on 31 points while also converting on half of her attack attempts.
However, according to Rosen, Welsh’s biggest contribution won’t show up in the stat sheet. It was actually taking attention away from the Wolverines’ star attacker and blocker, Abby Cole.
“Early on, it was very apparent they were going to try to stop Abby Cole,” Rosen said. “(Welsh) just did a really good job of using Abby as a decoy and then really making them pay for that choice, because she got lots of offense from other places.”
Michigan began the match steadily, never giving up the lead in the first set and committing just three attack errors as a team. Junior outside hitter Adeja Lambert was also crucial to the Wolverines’ quick start, with three kills in each of the first two sets and one in the third.
The second set of the match was the most competitive of the three. With seven ties, the Wildcats competed up until they called a timeout when they were down 14-11. From that point, Michigan took over, winning 11 of the last 18 points and sinking Northwestern into a 2-0 hole. Rosen did not attribute that run to any strategic adjustments, but rather a more effective execution of their game plan.
“I thought we just executed well,” Rosen said. “And again, I thought they were doing a pretty good job in the first part of that set. I thought we served a little bit easy in the first part of the second set, and then we got a little more aggressive.”
Michigan carried that aggression through to the third set, in which Rosen credited exceptional blocking. Specifically, the Wolverines silenced Northwestern’s Symone Abbott, who went from a .370 hitting percentage in the first two sets to a .157 average at the end of the night.
Michigan has now won five of its last six matches and is primed to make a run in the Big Ten. To do that, though, it will have to get through No. 1 Wisconsin, which visits Cliff Keen Arena on Saturday night.
“They’re very balanced,” Rosen said. “They’re very physical. They have probably the top-rated setter in the country running their offense. They’re going to be a handful.”
But for Rosen, he shouldn’t have a problem motivating his team, which was already scouting its next opponent on the bus ride home, watching the Badgers take on No. 3 Minnesota in another Big Ten showdown.