Through the first two games of Saturday’s match, the Michigan State volleyball team’s height and physicality looked as if it had grounded Michigan’s aerial attack once again.
Michigan had struggled in recent matchups against taller, more physical opposition, including being dominated against the Spartans 3-0 last Wednesday.
As the Wolverines headed back to the locker room following the second set, there were some signs that they could rally, but few could have predicted Michigan would come back and beat Michigan State in five sets, 3-2.
Despite losing five consecutive sets to the Spartans, Michigan coach Mark Rosen knew his team had the aggressiveness inside of it, especially on the defensive end, to at least break through and claim a set against the Wolverines’ in-state rival.
“(Rosen) told us to stay in it, and that we weren’t going down without a fight,” sophomore setter Adeja Lambert said. “Our defense is one of our strong suits, and without that (improved), we wouldn’t have done anything.”
With everything to gain, Michigan came out loose in the third set. Senior setters Carly Warner and Lindsey Lerg became the backbone the Wolverines needed, combining to dig Michigan out of eight Spartan attacks.
Warner and Lerg’s big plays in the back took the pressure off the Wolverines’ young attackers at the net. Freshman hitter Carly Skjodt racked up five of her 10 kills of the match in the third set, as Michigan began to crack through Michigan State’s defensive wall.
“We had to switch our offense and use more of our attackers on the outside,” Rosen said. “We spread our offense out, and I thought in the second set it worked well. The third set, we started terminating better and they had to spread their blockers out.”
But Michigan’s adjustments as the match progressed went far beyond tactical. The biggest change was a mental one.
All three of Michigan’s losses have beeen in straight sets to three of the country’s most physical teams in North Carolina, No. 18 Purdue and Michigan State. Winning a set against a team as aggressive as the Spartans was enough for Michigan to change its mindset to take down taller, more physical opposition.
No one showed a greater change in mentality than Lambert, who struggled killing chances in the mid-week matchup, earning a mere .133 attack efficiency.
Throughout the game, Lambert found more ways to expose Michigan State’s defense. In the tiebreaking set, Lambert had the Spartan front line figured out, and stepped up to play hero for the Wolverines. She earned four kills, two blocks and six of Michigan’s 15 points in the final game.
“We let ourselves play, and that’s all we can do,” Lambert said. “When we play a team like Michigan State, you always have to play your best and go hard all time. Once we did that, especially in the final set, things really turned around quickly for us.”
Rosen hopes the Wolverines’ effort against the Spartans will inspire his young squad as it goes deeper into the Big Ten schedule. There are several more ranked teams to come on Michigan’s slate, but Saturday’s signature win could be a starting point for the Wolverines to take off and find success in conference play.
“It’s all about a development process,” Rosen said. “I think we walk out of a match like that significantly better as a team because of the challenges and things we had to do to be successful. Hopefully we take that forward.”