What's more amazing than the fact that the unseeded and unranked Michigan Wolverines toppled powerhouse Stanford in Saturday night's Regional Final is that this is the third time in four years that they have done so. That's quite an amazing record to have against a perennial powerhouse. With the win, Michigan earned the program's first Final Four appearance ever and it was well-deserved. Before we examine how they did it this year, let's take a look back at the playoff history for these two teams.
Remember 2009, when the Regional was at Stanford's Maples Pavilion? The Cardinal was ranked No. 4 in the nation but met No. 16 Michigan in the Regional Semi. Even with superstars Alix Klineman and Cassidy Lichtman on the Stanford squad, the Wolverines (who had been ranked as high as No. 6 at one point in the regular season) beat Stanford quite handily in four sets. The final set score was 25-11, not exactly a barn-burner.
The two teams didn't meet in 2010, but in 2011 Michigan again beat Stanford on its home floor in four sets in the second round of tournament play. Stanford was short on stars that year but were ranked No. 4 at the end of the season to Michigan's No. 22.
And then there was last Saturday night. Not quite on Stanford's home floor, but close, just across the bridge at Berkeley. In what had to be the biggest of the three upsets yet, Michigan did it again. This time against a young but ultra-talented Stanford squad that was No. 1 over most of the last month of the regular season before they fell to No. 2 following a late season loss to USC.
The highest rank Michigan has seen this season was No. 22 and that was way back in early September. They fell out of the top 25 after that week and didn't appear on the AVCA Coaches Poll for the remainder of the season despite the fact that they beat Minnesota in three, Ohio State in four and Nebraska in five during the month of November. They suffered some bad losses that month too - four set losses to Illinois and Northwestern. But none of that matters now, because they seem to have found their way to another gear just in time to make a run for this year's national title.
So how did they do it this time? Stanford certainly couldn't have overlooked them with a recent record like that. I'd like to say it was the playoff pressure getting to a young and inexperienced team. But it wasn't that at all. Stanford just got beat.
After winning the first game, Michigan stepped it up significantly. As always, it started with tough serving. Stanford had trouble handling the ball which led to fewer choices on offense. But Michigan's defense was otherworldly. When Stanford did get good swings on the ball, it came right back up. Attacks that are usually kills for this team were getting easily picked up which led to Stanford getting tentative. They started tipping very ineffectively and the middles weren't connecting on the fast tempo sets. Stanford missed a few serves at some very bad times and before they knew it they were eliminated. Again. By Michigan.
Stanford made few adjustments while Michigan hummed along on all cylinders. Effective blocking, effective offense, incredible defense. The Wolverines played with a strong confidence that they could and would win the match. They'll need that confidence as they head into a National Semifinal match against a fierce Texas team that also seems to be humming along on all cylinders at just the right time. As the only unknown quantity in this week's gathering in Louisville, Michigan has an opportunity to throw a wrench in the works of this year's Final Four that no one could have expected.