The phrase “home sweet home” has brought nothing but success for the No. 17 Michigan women’s volleyball team.
That is until Sunday, when the Wolverines (13-2 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) fell to Penn State (11-3, 2-2) in straight sets by a score of 17-25, 21-25, 23-25, tarnishing the perfect 9-0 home record they held entering the match. Under the guidance of Russ Rose, the NCAA’s all-time winningest women’s volleyball coach, the Nittany Lions picked up their 11th victory of the season in one of the conference’s toughest atmospheres: Crisler Center.
Penn State jumped out to a hot start, grabbing an early 6-2 lead as a result of a handful of errors committed by the Wolverines. Soon after, Michigan found its footing and used a pair of big stuff blocks in the middle from sophomore middle blocker Kiara Shannon to trim the Nittany Lions’ lead at 8-10. A few points later, a huge cross-court kill from senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt cut the deficit to 10-11. With the momentum in the Wolverines’ favor, a heroic dig by senior libero Jenna Lerg set up yet another Skjodt kill, a turning point that gave Michigan a 13-12 advantage — its first lead of the match since being up 1-0. But to the Wolverines’ demise, Penn State closed the set on a 13-4 run to take the opening set by a score of 25-17.
Michigan played significantly better coming out of the gates in set two, going up 5-4 following a pair of kills and a service ace from Skjodt. After an accurate cross-court swing on a slide by Shannon and a wrist-away kill from her middle blocker counterpart, redshirt junior Cori Crocker, the Wolverines’ middle blockers began to take control of the match at net. Later in the set, Michigan took a 12-10 lead thanks to a lethal swing by freshman outside hitter Paige Jones off of a perfectly placed back-row ball by senior setter MacKenzi Welsh. Jones and Welsh showed off their excellent chemistry throughout the match, finishing with 11 assist-kill connections.
“Paige is a great physical player and she’s still growing as a great mental player,” said senior libero Jenna Lerg. “She has a good mindset right now, and she’s a talented all around player which is what we need. Having her on the court has been really fun — she’s great to play alongside.”
Meanwhile, the Wolverines as a whole were plagued by their own errors throughout the rest of the set. Over the course of the match, Michigan committed a total of 32 total errors en route to just a .150 attack percentage, its second-lowest mark of the season. Those numbers have given the Wolverines a focus for practice this week.
“We were a little bit sloppier tonight than we usually are but I think that’s because we were playing a better team and we wanted to go harder to challenge them,” Lerg said. “It’s good motivation for practice this week so we can have our hitters work on scoring points instead of just putting the ball in play. I don’t think it’s something negative — rather, it’s something to focus on this week.”
Despite the low attack percentage on Sunday afternoon, Crisler Center boasted an energetic crowd of 5,433 fans — a figure that exceeded the previous 2018 attendance record of 5,210 from Michigan’s Sept. 14th sweep of Notre Dame. This season’s massive turnouts haven’t gone unnoticed by the Wolverines on the court.
“We’ve pulled a great amount of attendance in our home games so far, and the fans who come out to support us are awesome,” said Lerg. “They’re really good volleyball fans — they know when to cheer. If we’re feeling down on ourselves, we feed off them. When they get riled up, we hear their energy. They’re loud during the point when someone makes a great dig or has a great swing. It’s awesome and we really enjoy it as a team.”
Even with such a large home crowd, Penn State still managed to control one major aspect of the game — the Nittany Lions consistently outplayed the Wolverines in their performance at the service line. Even when its serves weren’t aces, which it had four of, Penn State’s ball pace took the Wolverines out of system for most of the match.
“Once they built a lead, they really started ripping their serves,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “They had a much bigger cushion which allowed them to be a lot more aggressive. All of a sudden, we had to weather that too because they were going at full speed without worrying about the risk.”
Even while serving with maximum aggression, Penn State committed just five service errors on the afternoon — a figure that serves as a strong testament to their talent and precision at the service line.
As for how he tackled the task of slowing down the Nittany Lions’ service momentum, Rosen said, “Their rotation one killed us. In the final set, their rotation one only scored one point at the service line. I thought we did a really good job of stopping that rotation after spinning our lineup to give us better matchups. I was glad we were able to make the adjustment and prevent that from beating us.”
On the offensive end, Skjodt led the Wolverines with 15 kills on 44 swings with 3 errors — a .273 attack percentage — while Jones added 11 kills on 22 attempts with 4 errors — a .318 attack percentage. Skjodt’s 14.7 attempts per set marks a season high for her, something that can be attributed to both gameplan and the natural flow of the match, according to Rosen.
“We set Carly a lot from a tactical standpoint, but there are also a lot of situations when we’re out of system and she’s the only person we can set on the antenna,” Rosen said. “She’s a great outlet to have when we’re in a bad situation. Forty-four attempts is more than we’d like to set her but we had to because of how often we found ourselves out of system today.”
Despite being on the wrong side of the sweep, the Wolverines still found a number of takeaways from today’s match to help them improve moving forward. Rosen said it best: “That’s what up and down play will do to you.”