“Rivalries are interesting because it’s not always the best team that wins,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “It’s whichever controls the moment.”
And at several points throughout the match, the Michigan volleyball team’s ability to control the moment wound up serving as the decisive step towards its eventual victory, as the Wolverines (20-9 overall, 9-9 Big Ten) defeated Michigan State (17-14, 5-13) in front of a boisterous Spartan crowd on Saturday.
Late in the first set with the score knotted up at 22, Rosen, searching for a spark, went to his bench. He inserted freshman setter Erin O’Leary into her second career match. She would not disappoint.
“(O’Leary) just did an outstanding job of battling in one of the toughest positions you can put a player into,” Rosen said. “It was great.
“Erin’s a really tactical setter and she’s a really smart setter. It really just felt like at that point I wanted to get her in the game to help us stay with the gameplan and she did an outstanding job. One of the things I think she does really well is set with a purpose. She sets very intelligently and I felt like in that situation that’s what I wanted in the game.”
Rosen’s decision to play the young setter attested to his intelligence. The switch to O’Leary spurred Michigan towards a 30-28 first set victory that Rosen likened to a blow-for-blow heavyweight fight.
But with the Wolverines seeking a knockout punch in the second set, Michigan State countered from its corner with a blowout victory of its own, 25-18, revitalizing both the crowd and the players.
Michigan though, remained resolute. It pounced back with a third-set triumph of its own, led by junior setter Mackenzi Welsh, whose stellar play in the last two sets supplemented the clutch play of O’Leary in the first. The two combined for 43 assists on the match.
On the attack, the Wolverines were led by unsung hero, junior outside hitter Katarina Glavinic.
“Not only did she attack outstandingly, but she also blocked really well against their best attacker,” Rosen said. “That was huge.”
By still threatening on the outside with occasional swings from outside hitters senior Carly Skjodt and freshman Paige Jones against two-block fronts, Michigan freed up its other weapons, namely Glavinic. The Spartans continuously doubled the Wolverines’ top two outside hitters, which enabled Michigan to create numerous one-on-one opportunities for Glavinic. In turn, Glavinic dominated Michigan State en route to a career-high, 14-kill performance in which she recorded a .423 hitting percentage. She also contributed a team-high four blocks.
Redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker was another benefactor of Skjodt and Jones’ gravity on the outside. Crocker recorded five kills, the last of which sparked a 5-0 Wolverines run early in the fourth set.
Late in the fourth frame, with the match tied at 24, Michigan again exercised the control it exhibited in the first set. At a pivotal point in the match, the Wolverines found Jones on the outside, whose effortless and overpowering swing sent a ball cratering into the ground on the Spartan side of the court. The kill marked Jones’ 17th of the night, placing her in the team lead. On the ensuing point, Michigan State erred on the attack, gifting Michigan a hard fought victory in four sets.
Coming off a stretch in which the team struggled to close out games much like Saturday night’s, the victory over the Spartans appeared to signal a mental return to the season’s early days of winning.
“I thought tonight was a big step from us in just battling like we were earlier in the year when we’d have our back against the wall,” Rosen said. “We’d just fight and battle out of it, and I thought we did that really well tonight.