In Rec Hall fieldhouse in State College on Nov. 18, the Michigan volleyball team defeated then-No. 4 Penn State for the first time in 13 years and for the first time ever on the road.
It was, as one might expect, a turning point in the Wolverines’ (9-11 Big Ten, 19-12 overall) season.
“It kind of just showed our team that we can be successful against huge teams like that,” said senior libero Tiffany Morales. “Going into this tournament, we need to have that mentality that we can beat anyone we want.”
Michigan coach Mark Rosen also spoke of the importance of the Penn State game, but he hopes it will be the first of many more memories this year as Michigan heads to the postseason.
“I hope (the locker room postgame celebration) isn’t our highlight,” Rosen said. “(I hope) that three weeks from now, we have a new highlight.”
The Wolverines’ first test begins in Los Angeles at the John Wooden Center against Santa Clara (13-5 West Coast Conference, 22-8 overall).
As the team heads out west, Rosen thought back to important aspects of the season, including his most improved players.
He praised sophomore defensive specialist Caroline Knop, who echoed her coach’s sentiments about her improvement.
“She’s done a great job of steadying her game out,” Rosen said. “We talked about that. If she’s going to be in that front-row position long term, she’s got to be steadier and be more of a constant producer, rather than highs and lows, and I (think) she’s done that very well.”
Rosen’s acclaim was justified. She increased her kills from 2.70 per set as a freshman to 3.01 as a sophomore. Additionally, she became a more accurate player, with her kill percentage increasing from .162 last year to .213 this season.
Knop, along with junior middle blocker Abby Cole, anchors Michigan’s offensive attack. She was named to the All-Big Ten conference team this season, and her versatility has impressed Rosen.
“We’ve been able to move (Cole) from position to position,” Rosen said. “That’s something that last year would’ve been hard for her.”
Rosen and the Wolverines see making the NCAA Tournament as only the foundation. Rosen seeks to make it a continued goal not only to make the postseason, but to advance far into the tournament.
The year before Rosen’s arrival, Michigan failed to reach the second round. But since his time in Ann Arbor began, the Wolverines have reached three Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and a Final Four.
Earlier this year, it seemed his team would fall short of the postseason.
In early November, Michigan found itself in the middle of a four-game losing streak to four ranked opponents, but Rosen downplayed the skid’s significance.
“The previous match has no bearing on the match you’re in,” Rosen said. “You can win 50 in a row, and if you’re thinking about the 50, you’ll lose sight of the one you’re in.”
It’s no wonder then that the Wolverines defeated the Nittany Lions soon after the losing streak.
Now going into the postseason, Michigan will look to add more highlights to an already special season.
“It’s our most favorite time of the year,” Rosen said, perhaps echoing the famous Andy Williams song. “It is Christmas for athletes when you get into postseason play.”
Maybe the Wolverines will have more than just presents to celebrate on Christmas morning.