Wolverines cruise past Oakland, survive scare from Northern Arizona at Michigan Invitational

Friday, August 30, 2019 - 11:55pm

Senior MacKenzi Welsh was instrumental in Michigan's wins over Oakland and Northern Arizona on Friday.

Senior MacKenzi Welsh was instrumental in Michigan's wins over Oakland and Northern Arizona on Friday. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

For the Michigan volleyball team, Friday's matches couldn’t have come sooner.

The 15th-ranked Wolverines (2-0) have opened their season this deep into the calendar only once since 2004. But despite the long preseason, they didn’t show any signs of being behind the curve in a 25-18, 25-23, 25-8 sweep of Oakland (1-1) in the first match of the annual Michigan Invitational before fending off an upset bid against Northern Arizona (1-1) in a 25-18, 19-25, 14-25, 25-17, 15-10 nightcap victory.

Michigan used an efficient offense to grab an early lead, recording nine kills before committing an attack error against Oakland. Senior setter MacKenzi Welsh dished out assists to four different Wolverines in that span, keeping the Golden Grizzlies’ defense on their heels as Michigan widened the gap to as many as nine before closing the set.

The Wolverines picked up right where they left off in the second frame, racing out to a 5-0 advantage following a trio of Oakland errors. The Golden Grizzlies promptly shaved the deficit to three, but an 8-2 run gave Michigan the breathing room it needed to stave off a late push. Oakland took 12 of the next 15 points, tying the set at 23 points apiece. With the score knotted, freshman opposite May Pertofsky buried two consecutive kills to give the Wolverines a two-set advantage. 

Pertofsky and fellow freshman sensation Jess Robinson — the nation’s No. 8 recruit, according to Prep Volleyball — put on a show in their Michigan debuts. The duo paced the offense with a combined 17 kills on just 22 attempts while hitting out of the middle and at the right side pin.

Beyond the freshmen, Welsh maintained a balanced attack throughout the match. Following the graduation of offensive focal point Carly Skjodt, who took over 60 swings in some matches last year, a quintet of Wolverines recorded at least five kills, with Pertofsky leading the pack at a match-high nine. Michigan posted a .394 team attack percentage — a major spike from last year’s collective .227 clip — even without sophomore middle blocker Kayla Bair, who sustained an ankle sprain at Thursday’s practice.

The Golden Grizzlies rode the momentum of their rally attempt to their first lead of the match in the early stages of the third set, but it didn’t take long for Michigan to drop the hammer soon after. With the Wolverines up 10-8, Welsh went back to serve and took her team across the finish line, serving 15 straight points to close the match on a memorable run.

If there’s one area where Michigan needed to prove something on Friday, it was ball control. Jenna Lerg — whose 1,966 digs are the second-most in program history — graduated last spring, leaving the door open for junior libero Natalie Smith to step in and take the reins of the team’s defense. Though there was a handful of miscues on display, Smith showed promise with a team-high six digs.

“We’re going to be a good first contact team,” said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “What I don’t want people to think and what I don’t want our players to think is that we’re not good at it. I actually think we’re a good first contact team — we’re just not a super experienced first contact team.”

In the nightcap, ball control became more of a worry for Michigan. After cruising to a first set victory, the passing unraveled a bit in the second and third sets, forcing Welsh to set the ball to the Lumberjacks’ stationary double block on the outside. When the dust settled, the Wolverines dropped a pair of sets in their second match of the season, while it took 11 matches for them to drop a single frame a season ago.

Northern Arizona, which upset then-No. 8 Florida in a five-set thriller last September, pushed Michigan to the brink after a lackluster first frame. The Lumberjacks kept the match close by playing fundamental volleyball — they committed 13 fewer attack errors, ran a simpler offense and out-blocked the hosts by three. Part of the Wolverines’ struggle was self-inflicted, namely the negative hitting percentage that left them on the wrong side of a third-set drubbing.

Rosen tinkered with his lineup at that point, subbing in senior opposite Katarina Glavinic for senior middle blocker Cori Crocker and rotating Pertofsky to the middle. The move gave Michigan the injection it desperately needed, with Glavinic tallying five kills on eight errorless swings.

“Our offense was really stale,” Rosen said. “We weren’t scoring as we needed to. We felt like we needed to score more on that pin. (Glavinic) is more of a straight-up right side, and so we went away from the three-middle system and went to that. I think it changed the match in terms of the way (Glavinic) executed.”

But when push came to shove, it was Welsh’s four-point service run that ignited the final spurt. The Wolverines’ court captain transformed a two-point deficit into a two-point lead, giving Michigan the advantage it needed to stave off the opening night upset bid.