It happens the same way every set. Before set point, the crowd rises to its feet and begins a steadily increasing clap. The small but enthusiastic student section holds up a single finger, with only one point necessary to capture the set.
Saturday night, a “Go Blue” chant mixed into the mayhem, before a rousing rendition of “The Victors” celebrated Northwestern’s spike landing wide of the boundaries and a third-set victory.
A sold-out Cliff Keen arena had come to life.
At the beginning of the season, the Michigan women’s volleyball team (9-5 Big Ten, 20-6 overall) set a goal not to lose at home. If not for two hard-fought losses against top-ranked teams in the country, the Wolverines might be on their way to doing just that, after notching a 3-1 victory over Northwestern on Saturday.
On Oct. 18, Michigan came two points shy in the fifth set from knocking off then-No. 1 Wisconsin (20-3) at home, just weeks after falling to No. 1 Nebraska (21-1). Aside from those matchups, the Wolverines remain unscathed at home, providing a significant advantage in what is widely regarded as the strongest conference in the country.
“We want to defend our house, and a big part of that is the energy we get from the crowd and student section,” said junior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright. “I think the crowd really gives us energy.”
In the first meeting between the teams, Michigan cruised to a 3-0 victory, without much adversity. Saturday, though, the Wolverines would need the home-court advantage from a fifth straight sellout crowd.
After cruising to a 25-17 victory in the first set, Michigan struggled to contain Northwestern’s attack, led by outside hitter Symone Abbott, in a second-set loss. “In the first two sets, we just were kinda flat, from the court and the bench,” Kieffer-Wright said. “And both are equally important to our success.”
But behind a lively, post-football crowd, the Wolverines regained momentum — as Michigan head coach Mark Rosen describes, “the pressure gradient” of the game pushed in its favor. They won four of the first five points of the all-important third set and forced a Northwestern timeout. They would not relinquish that lead en route to a 25-19 third-set victory.
For senior middle blocker Abby Cole, the advantage comes down to a desire to represent the school well.
“First of all, it’s a pride thing,” she said. “We let people come into our house, and we need to protect our house. Definitely, when you’re playing with the block ‘M’ on your jersey, it does come down to a pride thing. It’s really important we don’t let them take that away from us.”
Saturday, it was clear the crowd didn’t want that advantage to be taken from them either.