By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 13, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For a team that wasn’t supposed to compete with a No.3 Texas lineup that was taller, faster and stronger, the Michigan volleyball team sure made it close.
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Unranked, without a star and riding a wave of momentum, the Michigan volleyball team caught four teams unprepared in the NCAA Tournament en route to its first-ever Final Four.
But on Thursday, Texas was ready. The Cinderella run ended in a close five set match as the Longhorns won, 25-11, 21-25, 23-25, 25-12, 15-11.
Sophomore setter Lexi Dannemiller did what she did all season, but it ultimately was wasn’t enough. Early in the first set, she took a pass from freshman libero Tiffany Morales and isolated junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin to blast a kill.
The third-ranked Longhorns were waiting at the net, though. A pair of Texas blockers rejected the ball and the Wolverines were left scrambling for it, caught off guard for the first time this postseason.
Michigan, coming off its win over No. 2 Stanford, ended the longest postseason run in its 29-year program history.
“We’re disappointed, we didn’t want to finish this way," said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. "I thought tonight... the way it started, it could have gone a negative direction, and I thought our team did a great job of pulling through and competing extremely well
"I'm proud of this whole team for collectively what they created in the culture of our gym."
Texas went on a 12-1 run in the middle of the first set, finding the holes in Michigan’s defense that few had exploited all season. The Longhorns used another 4-0 run later in the set to take a 1-0 lead. But Rosen, in his 14th season, rallied his team to make a game that looked out of control become manageable.
“Everyone literally made every single error that you could in the first game, so we got all those out of the way,” Erwin said. “The next set we kinda (said) 'you know, they have a three before their name and we don't, so we don't have the pressure on us.' Our team just came out with this fearlessness mentality.”
Tied at seven to begin the second set, Erwin wound up and finished with a hard swing on the ball for a kill. Without celebration, Erwin broke Michigan’s single-season kill record with her 597th. The previous mark, held by outside hitter Katie Bruzdzinski, stood for five years before the junior etched her name in the record books.
Combined with that mentality and a change in their offense, the Wolverines reversed roles, catching the Longhorns off guard. Texas’s speed and size allowed them to hang on, but led by Erwin’s seven kills, Michigan was able to slowly pull away.
Under the bright lights of the KFC Yum! Center, Erwin shined the brightest of the Wolverines, making all 13,385 fans forget about the All-American hitter on the other side of the court. Texas sophomore Haley Eckerman, who still finished 16 kills, paled in comparison to the Spring, Texas native.
Back-and-forth play highlighted the remainder of the second set, until Michigan scored five of the last seven points, fittingly capped by a kill from Erwin.
“She’s an amazing player and we have nothing but respect for her,” said Texas junior outside hitter Bailey Webster. “Even though every team is going to scout you, there’s great players all over the country. Sometimes they’re going to score their points. They’re being talked about for a reason.”
The Wolverines went into the locker room tied at one set apiece, and carried the momentum back out with them. The Longhorns, try as they might, couldn’t stop Erwin and the Wolverines balanced play in the third set.
Both teams played similarly, rarely letting the other jump out to a lead larger than three points. Erwin once again finished the set with a kill.
“I definitely think the tempo of our offense helped a lot,” Erwin said. “They’re high flyers, big blockers. I think if it wasn’t for the speed of Dannemilleer sets out to the pin, I wouldn’t be having those seems.”
Erwin finished with 26 kills and eight digs on the night, while fifth-year senior right-side hitter Claire McElheny finished with 15 kills in support during her last game as a Wolverine.
Texas, despite struggling to answer back, was prepared for Michgan’s impending momentum swing in the fourth set.
The Longhorns woke back up, finally realizing its season was in the waning moments. Texas angrily attacked the ball and never slowed down to build an early lead. Leading 16-11, the Longhorns cruised to a set victory on the momentum of a 7-0 run.
Morales and freshman defensive specialist Lindsey Lerg — who combined for 28 digs on the night — dove all over the court as Texas’ .455 attack percentage in the fourth set overpowered Michigan’s defense.
And then fatigue set in.
The Wolverines, gassed and running on the last bit of energy it had in its season, were not prepared for five sets. Dannemiller, who quietly quarterbacked her team with a 52 assists and 11 digs, managed to find the right hitters, but could not have accounted for a strong defense.
Texas libero Sarah Palmer recorded a career-high 31 digs on the night, managing to make an opportunity for Texas when it appeared one didn’t exist. Her teammates in front contributed 14.5 blocks as well, slowing down juniors outside hitter Molly Toon and middle blocker Jennifer Cross — something few teams managed to do.
With the match on the line in the fifth set, the Longhorns came out firing without missing a beat from a strong fourth set. Texas quickly moved out to a 4-0 lead to begin the set and shifting momentum in its favor.
But the Wolverines made up the deficit, tying the game at eight, with just seven points to go in the shortened set. Both teams, with their season in jeopardy, came out with adrenaline, but it was Texas who stayed in control.
“They’re the most athletic team we’ve seen,” Rosen said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re the best team that’s going to win it all, but as far as just physical athleticism and size, they’re as good as we’ve seen. It’s a game of inches at times. They just executed a little bit better than we in the end there.”
The Wolverines, having finally met a team able to stop its momentum, walked off with looks not of disappointment, but surprise. The team that held on in five sets against Tennessee, closed out a pivotal fourth set at No. 9 Louisville, beat its rival in the Sweet 16 and upset Stanford, had been in the position before.
But with seven freshmen on its team and only one senior, a team that lacked experience from the beginning of season needed more to continue with the unpredictable run.
There are no more practices. No more games. No more tomorrows. A season that looked like it would be over following six losses in eight games in the middle of October, was salvaged by a hot streak that propelled Michigan.
“It wasn’t always easy,” Erwin said. “We definitely had a lot to figure out at the beginning of the season. We had some chemistry issues, but I think we were really honest with each other and figured out our differences in order to be connected.”
But there is another season ahead.
“We’re going to make sure we work really hard to get to the next stage," Rosen said. "We can’t rest on this season; it will be a new season next year. We have to make sure that we build a team and a culture just like we did this year, and better.”
For a team that didn’t set expectations at the beginning of their season, the Wolverines will have eight months to prepare themselves for another run. The next one won't be as unpredictable.