In its last two matches, the Michigan volleyball team had chances to put its opponents away in the third set. It failed to capitalize on both occasions, but went on to win both matches in four sets.
With a 24-18 lead in the third set on Wednesday night against Iowa, the Wolverines saw another opportunity to earn a sweep for the first time in six matches.
As sophomore outside hitter Paige Jones spiked a kill into the middle of the court, Michigan (18-7 overall, 11-4 Big Ten), won the third set, 25-18, to secure a sweep over the Hawkeyes (9-17, 3-12) and extend its win streak to five.
In the first set, the Wolverines came out flat, at one point allowing five straight points to Iowa and forcing Michigan coach Mark Rosen to call a timeout to allow his team to regroup.
“He told us that we needed to pull it together as a team and work hard and play for each other and stay connected,” said freshman middle blocker May Pertofsky.
Following the timeout, the Wolverines were noticeably sharper. After two early errors, Michigan committed only one the remainder of the set.
Despite cutting down on errors, though, the key to the Wolverines’ first set win came on the service line. Senior setter Katarina Rocafort and junior labero Natalie Smith combined for four service aces to effectively put the set out of reach, as Michigan won, 25-16. Despite the score, the set wasn’t as lopsided as the stats made it appear, which saw the Hawkeyes outshoot the Wolverines, .390 to .375.
“I thought in a lot of ways they outplayed us in the first set,” Rosen said. “Where we got them was we killed them in the serving game, we scored a ton of points straight off of serves.”
Coming out of the break, Michigan struggled to find a rhythm. After falling behind, 10-6, to start the second set, Rosen called another timeout. Coming out of the timeout, Pertofsky helped the Wolverines regain momentum with two straight kills. Pertofsky would come through again later in the set after two straight kills put Michigan up, 24-19. Two plays later, a spike from fifth-year senior middle blocker Cori Crocker sealed the set. For Pertofsky, who led the team with 11 kills on the night, the key to her success came in part from an ability to play loose.
“I just wanted to come out for the team and play as hard as I could and not think about anything else but winning and having fun,” Pertofsky said. “And that’s always been the key for our team. To have fun and play as a family and play for each other.”
Entering the third set, it was evident that the Wolverines wanted to earn the sweep that had eluded their clutches over the last five matches. Michigan opened the set with a 10-6 lead, and at one point went up, 16-11.
Tempers flared, though, when an Iowa shot was called in bounds by the line judge. An animated Rosen approached the referee and demanded they look at the replay, which they obliged and ultimately overturned the call to give the Wolverines a 17-11 edge.
“It’s hard to see,” Rosen said on his decision to challenge the play. “The touches are really slight, you hope the four officials…one of them will see it from their angle, one didn’t, but the good thing is that we’ve got replay and that works.”
The replay and ensuing reversal seemingly sapped the life out of Iowa as the set ended soon after as the Wolverines earned the sweep with a 25-18 set victory. After a strong showing in the third set — which has notoriously been its Achilles’ heel — Michigan may be turning yet another corner as postseason play looms.
“We have a tendency to kind of decline in the third set with our focus and stuff,” Pertofsky said. “But we’ve been working really hard to stay focused and stay narrowed in and stay connected as a team.
“I think that we came out a little slow here and there, but overall we picked it up and we played hard and we played for each other.”