Say this much about the Michigan volleyball team: It’s not going to be intimidated by any opponent, not having played in the gauntlet that is the Big Ten Conference.
The Big Ten has six teams in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, including No. 2 Minnesota and No. 3 Illinois.
Michigan (24-9) will face No. 5 seed Texas (22-4) on Friday afternoon, on the campus of Brigham Young University. Technically, the Wolverines will be the underdogs, just as they were in their second-round match at No. 12 Pittsburgh, won in five sets.
“Technically” does not mean reality, however.
“With Pitt, I don’t think our team looked at it as underdogs,” longtime coach Mark Rosen said this week, before a team dinner in Utah. “And with Texas, certainly the Big 12 is not the Big Ten in any way. Our team has a lot of confidence. We’ve played teams like Penn State (8 seed), Nebraska (7 seed), Wisconsin (6 seed), Minnesota, and we’ve played them all twice (except Minnesota).
“Our team feels good about the matchup.”
Michigan is in the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time in 13 years, and the Sweet 16 for the seventh time ever, first in two years. A win Friday would put the Wolverines in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2012, against either Florida or host BYU.
All this after a thrilling victory over Pitt last weekend. Pitt won the first set, Michigan responded with the next two, and Pitt tied it taking the fourth.
The fifth set was tied at 3, until senior libero Jenna Lerg (Farmington Hills Mercy) took the serve and took over, with the help of senior outside hitter Carly Skjodt. Next thing you knew, it was 11-3 Michigan, and that was that. Thank you, next.
“The mood, really, the whole game — we had nothing to lose. They’re the ranked team, we’re coming into their home and trying to take that away from them,” said Skjodt, who along with Lerg earned a spot on the All-North Region team, in voting by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. “We were able to play free and play our game, and Jenna got on a really big run in the fifth set.”
Michigan started the season strong, at 18-3 following a three-set sweep of Northwestern on Oct. 20. But then things got dicey, and the Wolverines lost six of their next seven matches.
Part of that toe stub was injury-related. Redshirt junior middle blocker Cori Crocker (Brighton), junior outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom and junior setter Mackenzi Welsh all dealt with injuries that forced them out for extended periods, at the worst possible time. During that seven-match stretch, the Wolverines played Wisconsin twice, Minnesota, Nebraska and Penn State.
The Wolverines started to get healthy, and closed strong with three straight wins to end the regular season, including two over rival Michigan State. Still, the stumble kept them from getting seeded in the NCAA Tournament.
Healthy now, though, they never lost confidence.
“Just playing in the Big Ten and playing such great competition every night, we had a couple tough opponents in a row. It might’ve seemed like a hiccup,” Skjodt said. “But in some of those matches, we played really well. And then we were getting everybody back, getting back to full strength, with all our original starters back on the court.
“Playing great teams every single weekend really helps us.”
There also was a silver lining to the midseason injury issues, including opportunities for others to step up. And several did. Most notably, Rosen said, was junior outside hitter Katarina Glavinic, a Croatia native.
As players got healthy, Glavinic remained in the mix, and helped Rosen put together some depth that often proves helpful this time of year, when it’s win or go home.
That’ll be the scenario again Friday for the Wolverines.
Know this much: They’re plenty prepared, as they’ve been from Day 1, when they took a preseason team trip to Europe (that’s allowed once every four years), and have been dreaming of this moment — two wins from its second Final Four, back in 2012. That year, Michigan lost in five sets to Texas, the eventual national champion.
“It’s been a really fun year with this group,” said Rosen, Michigan’s head coach for 20 of the program’s 46 seasons.
“All year, we’ve felt like this was a reality, or at least a possibility.”
NCAA Volleyball Tournament
Who: Michigan vs. Texas
When: 4 Friday, Smith Fieldhouse, Provo, Utah
Records: Michigan 24-9; No. 5 seed Texas 22-4
At stake: A spot in the Elite Eight, against the Florida-BYU winner at 8 Saturday.