The No. 13 Michigan women’s volleyball team hit the road to take on two Big Ten foes this past weekend. The Wolverines (18-3 overall, 7-3 Big Ten) looked to pull off an upset in Champaign on Friday night while battling No. 7 Illinois (18-3, 7-3) in a thrilling match that went down to the wire.
When the dust settled, Michigan fell to the Fighting Illini, 22-25, 26-24, 24-26, 25-23, 13-15 despite arguably the Wolverines’ finest defensive showing of the season. Senior libero Jenna Lerg, senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt and sophomore defensive specialist Natalie Smith all recorded double-digit digs — finishing with 26, 17 and 16, respectively. Ultimately, attack errors dashed Michigan’s hopes of taking down Illinois.
In addition to her season-high 17 digs in the back row, Skjodt led all players with 25 kills on offense while only committing five errors. The match marked Skjodt’s fifth double-double of her magical senior campaign to this point. On a night when Michigan struggled to gain any momentum on offense — yielding just a .185 attack percentage for the match as a team — it turned to Skjodt when she was needed most, resulting in a season-high 76 attempts for the Wolverines’ most powerful pin attacker.
Knotted at one set apiece, Michigan and Illinois found themselves deadlocked at the back end of an intense third set with the scoreboard in Huff Hall reading 24-24. In front of a crowd of 2,542, the Fighting Illini used their height and experience to stave off the Wolverines when it mattered most. In the final two points of the set, Illinois looked to their two tallest seniors — 6-foot-2 setter Jordyn Poulter and 6-foot-3 middle blocker Ali Bastianelli — to secure a pair of crucial kills and close out the set. After that, the Fighting Illini worked around a handful of hiccups in the fourth set to capture a 15-13 win in the match’s decisive fifth set.
“Illinois is a really good team — it would’ve been a great win for us,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “Our kids played well, and we had a really good chance in set three, but we couldn’t quite pull it out.”
Following the narrow loss, Michigan made the trip to Evanston to take on Northwestern (11-11, 1-9) less than 24 hours later. With little time to digest the previous night’s outcome, the Wolverines put their resiliency on full display from the start. Michigan jumped out to a 9-3 lead — an opening run that set the tone for the Wolverines’ eventual 25-17, 25-23, 25-14 sweep. After splitting their two matches over the weekend, the Wolverines are currently tied for third place in the Big Ten standings.
Freshman outside hitter Paige Jones led all players with 12 kills against the Wildcats while registering an impressive .450 attack percentage — the highest clip against a Big Ten opponent of her young career. Jones’ stat line marked a major improvement from the previous night, when she committed nine errors on 32 swings against Illinois.
“Paige is a young player who’s continuing to learn and figure out what it takes to be successful day in and day out at this level,” Rosen said. “She struggled (against Illinois) last night, but I thought her rebound tonight was really good. You really have to like that in a player — everyone’s going to have an off night where they struggle a bit, so it becomes a matter of how they respond. I thought Paige responded really well in practice this morning and then in the game this evening for sure.”
Meanwhile, the Wildcats held Skjodt, Michigan’s most dangerous offensive weapon, in check throughout most of the match — limiting her to just eight kills and forcing her into five errors.
“We kind of expected that (from Skjodt) a bit because she took so many swings last night,” Rosen said. “She was feeling that soreness a little bit today so she was trying to be a smart, shotty player tonight. For her, she can get away with that because she knows when she needs to dial it up. She had a couple huge kills at the end of the second set when it was pretty tight; she knew she had to take a couple big swings.”
On the defensive end, the Wolverines’ weekend at the net was marked by two huge performances by a pair of young middle blockers — sophomore Kiara Shannon recorded seven blocks against the Fighting Illini on Friday and freshman Kayla Bair notched six of her own against the Wildcats on Saturday.
“They’re really getting to a high level,” Rosen said of Shannon and Bair. “One’s a freshman and one’s a sophomore so we know we’re going to have to work through that youth and watch them continue to develop, but I thought they took a really big step this past week. Between last night and tonight, but have done a really good job making an impact on the match — they did a great job.”
After setting Skjodt a staggering 76 times on Friday night, one of the most noticeable adjustments in Michigan’s approach was its balanced attack during Saturday’s match. Senior setter MacKenzi Welsh paced the offense with 31 assists, and three Wolverines saw at least 15 attack attempts in the team’s bounce-back effort. Welsh’s decision to spread the ball around made her very effective at the helm of Michigan’s offense while keeping Northwestern’s defense uncertain throughout the match.
“Mack was really good last night and then really good again tonight,” said Rosen. “She did a great job with her selection, her decision-making, and her adjustments when she got a feel for the defense. She’s running a very efficient offense right now.”