I have to take a moment to give the squad from Michigan a few props. Last week, I assumed that they wouldn't match up very well against Texas. On paper, they shouldn't have. Not many teams can hang with Texas's arsenal of hitters including Haley Eckerman, Bailey Webster, Khat Bell and Sha'Dare McNeal. But in the end, unranked and unseeded Michigan gave No. 3 Texas more of a run for their money than No. 5 Oregon did in the final. What I couldn't quite figure out was how.
Lexi Erwin was Michigan's lone go-to girl, their leading hitter and the only Wolverine to get Honorable Mention in this year's All-America awards. Erwin was effectively shut down in the first and fourth sets along with the rest of her teammates. Texas smoked Michigan in that first set 25-11 and again in the fourth set 25-12.
One might have thought the entire match would have gone that way considering the way these two teams matched up on paper. But alas, Michigan managed to win sets two and three and became the first team to take Texas to five sets all playoffs long.
How did they do it? To tell you the truth, I had to watch the game twice to figure it out. First and foremost they did it with attitude. The announcers said that they were pretty feisty about being the team that no one thought would be there and no one was giving a chance to advance. So much so that they jokingly referred to the event as the Final Three. Their moxie was admirable.
Also admirable was the fact that they never gave up. No matter how badly they lost a set, they re-grouped, put that behind them and started on the next one fresh. They did it against Stanford in the Regional Final. After losing the first set 20-25, they came back and won the next three sets. It was even more impressive when they came back and did the same thing at the Final Four despite being under incredible pressure and up against a superior team.
But it had to be more than attitude that won them two sets against a perennial powerhouse. And on second viewing, those wins could be chalked up to a number of keys. First, they served tough and Texas had a little trouble on serve receive. But they also dug a lot of balls and had some very timely blocks against Texas hitters which led to some tentative tips from the usually aggressive outsides Eckerman and Webster. Texas also had a tough time with Michigan's fast offense, often not getting two blockers up or in the right position to block the attack.
Despite having a rough first set,Erwin, Michigan's big hitter, warmed up in sets two and three. She just kept swinging and swinging and swinging until she found a way to put the ball on the floor. The rest of Michigan's hitters did a great job of keeping Texas on its heels on defense and were able to put away balls on off speed shots and tooling the block. Through it all, Michigan stayed loose, kept smiling and dancing and playing their hearts out.
In the fifth they stayed close through the first half of the set, but Texas finally pulled away when they finally got their middle and right side involved in the offense to win the final set 15-11. Texas would go on to steamroll Oregon 3-0 in the final, but this semifinal match pitting the eventual national champion against the a team that no one expected to be there turned out to be the best match of all.
It seemed to matter not at all that this was Michigan's first ever Final Four appearance. They played like they believed they deserved to be there. And they proved to everyone who watched them play that they indeed did.