Senior outside hitter Paige Jones bounced on her toes. She watched as her Michigan volleyball teammates received the serve and set the ball in her direction. Across the net waited four time first-team All-American Dana Rettke and the rest of Wisconsin.
Facing the powerful middle blocker, Jones decided to try and hit the ball off the block to win the point. She jumped up and swung, but the ball sailed long after passing just above the fingertips of Rettke. A few inches lower and the ball deflects off of Rettke for a point to the Wolverines, but, instead, Jones’ move went down as an attack error and a point to the Badgers.
These fine margins did not go Michigan’s (11-6 overall, 4-4 Big Ten) way throughout the match, as they fell 3-0 to No. 3 Wisconsin (15-1, 7-1).
Jones finished the match with six errors and just eight kills, but the Wolverines needed to be aggressive to win the match. Against the 6-foot-8 Rettke, they tried to deflect it off her block instead of beating her straight up. This was a viable strategy but it increased the chances of hitting it long and out of play.
“They’re a big team with a big physical right side,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “I like that we attacked aggressively, but we missed the block a few times. That’s certainly not helpful, but at the same time it’s part of the gameplan that you’re trying to do it but you just don’t always do it successfully.”
In the first set neither team could separate from the other, as Wisconsin won 25-23. There were 12 ties and no extended runs. Most points required multiple digs and attempts at kills to win. Both sides had their blocks in place and kept giving themselves chances to win the point.
Michigan tried numerous ways to get around the Badgers’ block, from tipping the ball over to attacking the top of it. However, kills were difficult to achieve and Wisconsin seemed to get to everything. On defense, the Wolverines had to quickly get set on defense to stop Rettke and fellow All-American Devyn Robinson. But, Michigan looked up to the task and was able to keep points alive to give their own talented attackers another shot at the point.
“When they pass the ball well, they have a lot of options,” said Rosen. “Blocking-wise, you’re not able to cover all those options, and defensively I thought we had them hitting a low number and we did a good job.”
The only easy points came from the serve of junior middle blocker May Pertofsky. She had two aces and multiple other serves that put the Wolverines in a good position to win points. But, Michigan failed to win the first set due to a few missed spikes and service errors, and such mistakes are costly against a team as good as the Badgers.
The second and third sets were tougher for the Wolverines, as they fell 25-15 and 26-24, respectively. In the second set, Wisconsin took advantage of miscues to get out to an early lead and never looked back. Michigan could not put any runs together to get itself back in the set, and it was quickly obvious that the Badgers would take the set.
The Wolverines did a better job of staying close to Wisconsin in the third set. After a back and forth set, Michigan had a set point at 24-23. After losing the set point to a good spike from the Badgers, though, the Wolverines gave up two more points to lose the set and the match.
Michigan tested Wisconsin, but in the end, the Badger’s size and talent was too much for the Wolverines. Losing a close first set greatly hurt Michigan’s chances of winning the match, and if a few points swung in a different direction in that set, then the match could have been completely different.
However, the points went in Wisconsin’s favor and the Badgers eased away comfortably for the win.