Nov. 10, 2016
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The competitive juices were flowing for the University of Michigan volleyball team Wednesday night (Nov. 9) at Cliff Keen Arena, and it all spilled over at the end of the second set against Indiana.
The unranked Hoosiers had beaten the 17th-ranked Wolverines just 11 days prior, taking three of four sets in Bloomington, and Michigan coach Mark Rosen wasn't pleased with what he was seeing after dominating in the first set, 25-17.
Rosen said his team was allowing Indiana to stay in the contest, and it was 22-22 in the second set. However, his players took control after a timeout at that point, and Claire Kieffer-Wright scored the clinching point in a 25-22 set on a dramatic blocked spike attempt by the Hoosiers' Elizabeth Asdell. [ Game Recap ]
"You have to come out there and you have to attack them," said Kieffer-Wright, a junior from South Pasadena, California. "We were out for blood the whole night. We needed to figure out how to close out, and we definitely did."
She put the exclamation point on winning the pivotal second set with that block.
"That's always a good feeling and I love to block it," said Kieffer-Wright. "I think me and our team in general is not (viewed) as one of the great blocking teams -- especially in the Big Ten, where there are some big blocking teams out there.
"But to be able to do that and send us into intermission (with a second-set victory) was a really good feeling."
Senior Abby Cole reached across the table during the post-game interview to bump knuckles after her fellow middle blocker.
"That (block) definitely provided a good spark of energy right before going into the break," said Cole, a 2015 second-team All-American and two-time All-Big Ten selection from Grand Haven (Michigan) High. "Sometimes the break can hurt more than it helps. Especially if you are coming off a set where you didn't feel you played your best.
"And set two, we let our guard down a little bit and kind of waited for them to win. So, I jumped like 10 feet in the air (on the clinching block). It was awesome, but definitely the timing of that was important, too."
Michigan completed the sweep by taking the third and final set, 25-22, with another comeback effort. It fell behind, 17-19, but scored four of the next five points to take the lead. Talented senior Kelly Murphy registered a kill on a spike that Indiana blocked out of bounds to end the set and match.
Rosen was pleased with the team's improvement since that recent loss to Indiana.
"Our team did a really good job of growing from that match to this match," said Rosen, who has taken Michigan to 14 NCAA Tournaments and the 2012 Final Four in 17 previous seasons. "I thought we followed the game plan real well and out-blocked them."
Cole, 6-foot-5, had nine kills in 14 attempts for a .571 success rate and added five blocks.
Kieffer-Wright, 6-foot-1, led all players with 12 kills in 19 attempts (.421) and seven blocks.
"She uses her athleticism really well," Rosen said of Kieffer-Wright. "She's fast and really explosive. Her contribution is not only that, but she's super competitive, fiery. Whenever she gets a kill or a block, there's an emotional charge from that. You see her emotion come out and that's a great intangible."
The Wolverines (21-6, 10-5 Big Ten) surpassed their overall and conference victories from last season in this one, and still have five matches remaining.
Where has this team improved its play in order to improve its records?
"I think just being able to make adjustments in the moment," said Cole, who is going to join Michigan's women's basketball team when the volleyball season concludes. "We scout the teams, but players don't always do exactly what you think they will, especially good players, and there are a lot of them in the Big Ten.
"So, it's making those adjustments throughout the match, reading things on your own, and listening to what the coaches say."
Rosen said "volleyball IQ" is this team's strength, adding that it allows him to make timely "tactical" moves as a result of the give-and-take he and associate head coach Leisa Rosen (his wife), assistant coach Sean Byron and other staff members have with players.
Though, the going gets tough down the stretch. Michigan travels Saturday night (Nov. 12) to No. 15 Michigan State before continuing on the road against No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 2 Minnesota. The Wolverines final Cliff Keen match is Nov. 23 with the Spartans, and they close out the regular season Nov. 26 against No. 1 Nebraska in Lincoln.
"In our next five matches," said Rosen, "the lowest ranked team is 15. We look forward to that. It's going to be a great opportunity for us going into the NCAA Tournament to have that kind of competition on the road. We're going to go to Jenision (Field House) on Saturday and it's going to be rocking with 5,000 people."
Cole said, "It's a really exciting conference to play in, and undoubtedly the best conference for volleyball in the country right now. That's huge, and you can't overlook anyone by any means. Rivalry matches like Michigan State and Ohio State have some extra pride, for sure. But in the end of the day, we just need to focus on the game plan."
Michigan is 13-2 at Cliff Keen this season, and its only home losses came to the Badgers and Cornhuskers at times when both opponents were ranked No. 1 in the AVCA poll.
"It's important to us that when a team comes into our house that we need to take care of it," said Cole. "It's kind of a pride thing. We definitely should've beaten (Indiana) on the road, but we made some big adjustments and worked a lot on our offense and our defense, and obviously that made a big difference."
Cole realizes she has just one home match remaining as a senior, and said a copy of a recruiting letter her mother sent earlier this week brought that ending into focus.
"It made me realize how fast this has all flown by," said Cole. "I wouldn't change anything that's happened since I've been here, but I do wish I could rewind and do it all over."
Rosen, seated across the conference room table from his star player, smiled and added, "Me, too."
He recalled a humorous story of how Cole, who also strongly considered Florida and Notre Dame, called to say Michigan was her choice and got Rosen's young son, Cameron. He was in charge of the phone because his father had a speaking engagement.
Cole told Cameron of her decision first, and became his all-time favorite Wolverine. She's pretty high up Mark Rosen's list, too.
"She's an amazing athlete ... a gifted athlete," he said of Cole. "She's somebody who gives so much of herself, and not just in volleyball. It doesn't matter what setting she's in. I imagine if I went into a class and they were having a discussion, Abby is going to give a lot.
"She's a connected person, and relates real well with people. She makes everyone feel better, everyone play better ... As a coach, you dream about those kind of players."