Dec. 12, 2009

By Michelle Smith
Special to

STANFORD, Calif. – Stanford got down early and could never figure out how to recapture its home-court advantage.

Michigan, the No. 13 seed, advanced to the regional final of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament by defeating Stanford 3-1 Friday night at Maples Pavilion.

The Wolverines (27-9) move on to face 12th-seeded Hawaii on Saturday night with a trip to the Final Four on the line. It is Michigan’s first trip to the regional final.

There will be no return trip to the Final Four for the Cardinal (23-8), which played in the national title match three straight seasons.

Michigan made the most of its third straight trip to the Sweet 16, pounding the Cardinal from all sides. Four Wolverines registered double digits in kills, led by sophomore outside hitter Alex Hunt, who had 18 kills and 14 digs. Senior outside hitter Juiliana Paz added 15 kills. Setter Lexi Zimmerman finished with 51 assists.

“The game plan for us is we wanted to be the aggressor,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “If we sat back and waited for them to bring the game to us, we were going to be in trouble. And I thought from Game 1, we took the aggressive approach and got paid off for it.”

Michigan finished with a .358 hitting percentage, much better than its .243 average this season. The Wolverines’ 58 digs were also much above their season average.

“Defense has been our main priority all year,” Hunt said. “We’re not the biggest blocking team, so defense is the main thing to stay in the game against big opponents.”

Michigan started strong on the Cardinal’s home court, winning the first set 25-18, and jumped to a 6-2 lead in the second before Stanford found its groove.

Back-to-back kills by senior Janet Okogbaa put Stanford up for the first time 9-8. The Cardinal moved out to a 20-15 lead on a kill by three-time All-American Alix Klineman, but the Wolverines hung in and eventually tied the score 23-23.

But the Cardinal closed out the crucial set on a tip by Cassidy Lichtman, and then Jessica Walker’s ace on game point, which grazed the back line, sealed the second-game win 25-23.

But from there, the Wolverines took charge. Michigan went up 20-13 in Game 3 before Stanford closed the gap and then fell short, losing 25-22. And the final game was a rout, with Michigan building a 13-point lead before closing out the match 25-11.

“They played great,” Klineman said. “There wasn’t one person on their team that didn’t contribute. I think there were times that we let the pressure get to us a little bit, and we didn’t play as aggressive as we planned to. This is our gym, and we should have walked in and taken over, and instead we let them play their game. This is not how we planned for it to go.”

Klineman finished with 18 kills to lead Stanford, which was held to a season-low .195 hitting percentage.

“We felt like the match was going to go through her, and we knew she was going to get kills,” Rosen said. “She was going to get hers. We did talk about it. If she gets 15 or 20, we’re probably in good shape. If she gets 30 or 40, it’s going to be a tough night.”

Stanford was 7-7 this season when the opponent won the first set. It was a tough hole to climb out of against an aggressive, balanced team. But Stanford coach John Dunning said his young team made great strides this season.

“That first weekend, we were fighting for our lives on every play against everybody we played,” Dunning said. “We’ve come a long way.”