It started with a block on the left side, followed by another on the right. When American gathered for a third attempt, the Wolverines swatted that one, too, this time into the floor to take a commanding 12-5 first-set lead. The towering front line of sophomore Claire Kieffer-Wright, sophomore Carly Skjodt and freshman MacKenzi Welsh rejoiced along with the hometown Crisler Center crowd.
It was that kind of night for the Wolverines, who made quick work of the Eagles in their 3-0 victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Nearly three months ago, the Michigan volleyball team (11-9 Big Ten, 23-10 overall) defeated American (15-1 Patriot League, 27-7 overall) in the Panther Invitational, 3-0. Thursday night, the Wolverines picked up right where they left off. No. 12 Michigan came out in its NCAA Tournament debut with a 25-13 first-set victory behind the strong play of Kieffer-Wright and senior outside hitter Kelly Murphy, who each tallied five kills in the set.
“It’s always hard in that first match of the NCAA Tournament to see how the nerves are going to be for the team, how we’re going to get into a rhythm,” said Michigan head coach Mark Rosen. “And I thought we did that really well.”
In the second set, though, the Patriot League champions fought back.
Trailing 17-14 and later 20-17 in the second set, Rosen was forced to call timeouts to get his team refocused.
“I don’t think in timeouts it’s about what we say, it’s more giving them a break, them talking with each other and just calming down,” Rosen said. “I think they responded really well to the change in momentum (at 20-17).”
From there, the Wolverines came back to win the second set, 25-23, and cruised to a third-set victory, 25-12, completing a win full of power and efficiency.
Michigan finished with 51 total kills, only one shy of its season-high in a three-set match. The attack was multi-dimensional, with three different Wolverines in double-digit kills — senior middle blocker Abby Cole (10), Murphy (10) and Kieffer-Wright (13).
Going forward, Michigan will face Oregon on Friday night at Crisler Center again, with a potential showdown with fifth-seeded Kansas looming afterward.
“We’ll spend a lot of time in the next 24 hours preparing for (Oregon),” Rosen said. “They’re fast, they move around a lot. They’re very elusive in the way they come at you, and they’re athletic.”
But Rosen and his team don’t seem to be intimidated by any opponent going forward. They believe playing in the Big Ten — the conference with each of the top three seeds in the tournament and six of the top 16 — has been the ultimate primer.
“I think playing in the Big Ten is the best way to prepare for the tournament,” Kieffer-Wright said. “I really think that the teams in the Big Ten are the best you’re going to see all year.”
It was a routine win that took a bit of resiliency for Michigan. But after the game, Rosen and his team clearly had their sights set on bigger things.
In case there was any doubt, the Wolverines harbor the ultimate goal.
“National champions,” Kieffer-Wright said.
Added Rosen: “Five more rounds.”