The Michigan volleyball team started off on the wrong foot Saturday night, as the Wolverines, like they have been all season, were plagued by inconsistency on the court.
For coach Mark Rosen, it was a sight that was all too familiar.
“Playing at the level we’re at with the teams we play against, we have to be consistent with our execution,” Rosen said. “Last night we weren’t.”
Michigan (6-8 Big Ten, 16-10 overall) dropped its match to Illinois (9-5, 18-7) in a hard-fought, five-set match. The Wolverines lost the first two sets, rallied to win the third and fourth, but then conceded the final set of the hotly-contested match.
Although Michigan could not secure the victory, Rosen was pleased with his team’s resolve.
“I’m really proud of how our team responded,” Rosen said. “I love that our girls had the fight to come back in that game. Down 2-0 and in an opposing gym, it would have been easy to let that go. It’s even harder when you lose after that but we’ll come back and fight again.”
And fight the Wolverines did in the final three sets, as they slowly adjusted to Illinois’ unexpected style of play. While Michigan prepared for the Fighting Illini team they had seen on tape, the one they faced on the court Saturday night caught them by surprise.
“They attacked us differently,” Rosen said. “Whether that’s because they saw something in our defense that they thought they could exploit or whether they wanted to create a different matchup we’re not sure, but those are part of matches. Hitters have more than one option usually. They’re not going to be one dimensional.”
Early on, the Wolverines struggled to play in sync with each other. Michigan committed 16 errors in the first two sets, compared to merely four from Illinois.
But by the third set, the Wolverines managed to limit the Fighting Illini’s effectiveness. They grabbed the set, 25-22, and carried their momentum into the fourth, where they neutralized Illinois’ hitters en route to a 25-19 set victory in which the Illini did not record a single kill.
Come the fifth set, both teams were energized and locked in. The teams jostled for the lead, and by the end of the set there had been 14 ties and seven lead changes. Unfortunately for Michigan, once the dust had settled on the hectic final set, Illinois had emerged victorious. However, Rosen was not upset with his team’s performance.
“At that point it comes down to a really thin margin,” Rosen said. “We made two reception errors that hurt us toward the end of the game and we made a service error that hurt us. We’re not going to play perfectly, but if they play a little cleaner, and I thought they did, that’s a huge difference. We were doing some really good things, but we got to be a little cleaner.”
One of those good things was the Wolverines’ ability to finish rallies. Michigan killed at a 45.8 percent rate in the final set, well above their season average of 25.4 percent. Of the 15 points recorded in the set, 13 came on kills.
For the match, junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt paced the team in kills with 22. Senior opposite hitter Katherine Mahlke also had a standout performance, ending the match with a season-high 15 kills.
The team was led elsewhere statistically by sophomore setter MacKenzi Welsh, junior libero Jenna Lerg and senior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright, who carried the team respectively with 61 assists, 22 digs and four blocks.
And despite Saturday’s disappointment, the Wolverines will soon have a ripe chance at revenge, with Illinois set to travel to Ann Arbor this Saturday.
As Rosen put it: “The fact that we’ve got them coming into town soon is definitely not a bad thing.”