For the last few years, Michigan has been building a name for themselves in volleyball. It wasn't too long ago that Michigan was always a bottom wrung team. Under the tutelage of Coach Mark Rosen, Michigan has scraped its way to respectful. Friday, it took the next step.
In front of a packed house of 5,772 in Omaha, NE, just an hour away from the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln, the Wolverines took on the #3 Cornhuskers in the Runza/AVCA Challenge, the top tournament in the college volleyball regular season. This game was going to be tough; Nebraska has dominated Michigan in 3 games, sweeping Michigan in 3 games each time. The Cornhuskers have only lost once ever in the Qwest Center. Nebraska was coming off yet another Final Four appearance, knocking Michigan out in the same stadium during the Sweet 16 round.
But Michigan came out looking to match the effort of the 2007 season opener against Hawaii in Hawaii. They wanted to take out the crowd early. They wanted to get into the heads of the younger Husker lineup. They did just that. Michigan came out strong early. Juliana Paz and Alex Hunt were putting tremendous pressure on the Huskers front line. Megan Bower and Courtney Fletcher, who wasn't even slated to start until the last minute, were strong on the front, affording Michigan plenty of opportunities for easy passes. Everything clicked. [Full recap after the jump]
Alex Hunt was the true hero though. When Paz was getting stuffed with blockers, Alex Hunt ripped the ball with no mercy. Her left handed shots seemed to confuse the Nebraksa blockers who sent her shots wide if they were able to stop it at all. Hunt finished with 14 kills, twice the total of any other player on either team. At one point, just when Nebraska showed signs of gaining momentum, Hunt's shot to end the first set went right into the face of the Nebraska libero. It bounced all the way into the stands, which at the Qwest center, aren't very close. [Update: upon watching the game again, I confused where this one bounced to a Megan Bower hit. The ball off their libero had enough force to bounce all the way back across the net to our serving side. Video at MGoBlue] That point put the nail in the coffin.
Michigan was in the driver's seat, leading or tied for the lead on 73 of the next 78 rallies. Nebraska became lost – "bewildered" was repeated over and over again by the announcers. By the third set, Michigan jumped out to such a big lead, the Cornhuskers all but threw in the towel. Michigan was the well oiled machine. Nebraska was making the small errors that had cost Michigan several games over the last few years. There was a total role reversal from last year.
Michigan would win 3-0, with scores of 25-23, 25-21, and 25-17. It was their first win over a top 5 team in program history. So while this young Nebraska team is probably a little overrated, Michigan made the statement tonight that it plans on taking it to the competition, and that's something to be excited about.
Nebraska coach John Cook summed it up thus:
We got a good old butt kicking tonight. Michigan brought it and played great tonight. They put a lot of pressure on us and we did not do a very good job of handling it. This will be a great learning match for us. Michigan was a scary team for us to play. They went on a foreign tour, they got a lot of players back and they were much more organized and played much better as a team tonight than we did.
He also compared us to the Stanford team that did this and later won the national championship. That's probably too far of a stretch, even for the biggest Michigan volleyball homer, but it's encouraging nonetheless. But I mean hey, last year, three of the four teams invited to the AVCA tournament made the Final Four. Michigan probably won't be aiming for this, but we definitely have a shot of at least putting pressure on Penn State.
As for my other thoughts:
- I thought Paz was getting set pretty deep to start the game. Some of the sets from Zimmerman were almost to the 10 ft line. The blockers for Nebraska were able to get a better read on the ball and react accordingly.
- Alex Hunt had a terrific kill from the back row to save a possession. I missed who made the great pass while falling away from the court, but it came right to Alex who, being left handed was left wide open to wail on it. She knocked it perfectly into the open near corner.
- Lexi Zimmerman had the only solo block of the game. She turned around to see a hit coming on a 2 (instead of pass, set, spike, you hit instead of set), and she made an amazing effort to throw the ball back down.
- Our middles seemed quiet the first two sets. Nebraska was able to exploit the inside of the block by waiting on the middle to commit, then shooting behind them. That was concerning to start the game. Looking back at the box score, I was really surprised to see that Rood and Fletcher combined for 11 kills. I can't remember too many 0 or 1 sets to the middle.
- Sloane Donhoff redeemed herself for the NCAA tournament game against Nebraska. She looked solid in the libero role and comfortable receiving serve, a vast improvement over last year's finale.
- Michigan didn't make any substitutions outside of using the libero. This seemed somewhat strange, but at the same time, each of our hitters plays the back row really well and are normally consistent servers.
Coming Up Next
Michigan takes on #22 Kansas State on Saturday. K-State is fresh off a 5 set loss to Minnesota, but the Wildcats looked very good through much of the game. Their two outside hitters, Ludwig and Chisholm, definitely looked strong and will most likely be a tougher test than what we saw from Nebraska. What does bode well for Michigan is their ball handling. During the 1st, 2nd, and 5th sets, K-State was having a lot of problems passing and setting the ball. Their unforced errors really are the main reason Minnesota won the first two sets. During 3rd and 4th sets, however, K-State played solid and really turned the game around. If the Wildcats play consistently at that level, it will be rough.
The first serve is slated for 7:00p ET on CBS College Sports. There will be another CiL liveblog on mgoblue.com. The liveblog curse seems not to affect mgoblue.