First to Five: That Fifth Set, Tho

By Mila Jasper

Each week, our volleyball columnist Mila Jasper writes about the biggest stories in the Big Ten in “First to Five”. This week. she talks about a few five-set matches that caught her attention:

This week, the Big Ten was full of five-set madness. Penn State beat Illinois in five. Nebraska lost to Purdue, Maryland beat Northwestern and Indiana fell to Iowa, all in five. Minnesota came back to beat Michigan in five, and Northwestern fell to Rutgers in five. 

It’s not surprising that more and more matches are going the distance. It’s late in the season, and that means teams should be hitting their stride. Everyone is ready to compete. But two of the five-set marathons struck me as particularly interesting: both featured unusual 6-point runs followed by even more unusual comebacks. 

Yet both ended in disappointing, anticlimactic fashion. 

Michigan vs. Minnesota: The Blocking Sub of the Century 

Minnesota has a great story to tell this week. The Golden Gophers hadn’t played a five-set match the entire 2019 season. No one would have predicted on Friday that the Michigan Wolverines would snatch the first two sets out from under the now-number six team in the nation – especially when that team was hitting .483 in the second set. 

But Michigan was playing well. Game respects game. And respect means giving your all even when the game’s not going your way. So the Gophers rallied back. They fought together. They drew even, despite the pressure. When the match was on the line, they pulled through! 

This narrative isn’t wrong, but it obscures the utter madness, the total anarchy of the fifth set. 

Michigan hopped to the 8-point marker first, after a 6-1 run put the Gophers on their heels. But after the teams switched sides, the strangest 6-point run I have ever seen changed the course of the game. 

Minnesota was operating with no setter on the floor. Yes, Bayley McMenimen was on the bench. Hugh McCutcheon subbed in Freshman middle blocker Shea Rubright to close down the airspace above the net. 

Let me just say, I have mixed feelings about this kind of blocking sub. Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t. It’s probably a smart play, but it feels like a bit of a coin toss to me. 

This time was different. The 6’5” first year got the job done. Rubright’s blocks accounted for three of the Gophers’ six points during that run. She eliminated Sydney Wetterstrom as an offensive option, increasing the pressure on Michigan setter Mackenzie Welsh to a brutal degree. 

Rubright’s three blocks were joined by another block at the other pin from Lexi Hart and two failed attack attempts from Wetterstrom and Paige Jones, who was having a career night. But it was the three stuffs against Wetterstrom that made the run. So textbook were Rubrigt’s blocks that it looked as though you were watching the same exact point, over and over. 

This run cost Michigan both their timeouts and a lot of emotional energy. Still, they weren’t ready to let the work they put in to secure the first two sets disappear as quickly as sets three and four did, which is extremely commendable. 

After freshman middle/outside May Pertofsky finally managed a sideout kill, Michigan went on a 3-1 run to draw even at 12-12 and then again at 13-13. Now it was anyone’s game. Dignity was out the window, and only grit was left. 

But instead of a tooth-and-nail battle for the finish – I was hoping for extra points – the match ended with two of the saddest points you could possibly imagine. After having the nerve to take Minnesota to five in the first place, after surviving the loss of their dignity to Shea Rubright, Michigan apparently had no fight left to muster. 

The Gophers secured game point not on a tough kill or a well-placed shot, but because two Michigan players collided trying to pick up a weak roll shot from Stephanie Samedy. Then, to end it, Michigan mishandled a 50-50 ball at the net. And it was over. It was meek, it was timid, it was disappointing. It was not how a team looking to break into the top five of the Big Ten can afford to play. 

Here’s the kicker: Michigan actually outscored Minnesota in every category (points, kills, aces, assists, digs). Every category except one – blocks. That has to hurt. 

Northwestern vs. Rutgers: 3 Service Errors, Two Dropped Balls, 1 Sad Fifth Set 

The match in Piscataway was not even close to the caliber of play in Ann Arbor. But the conclusion was just as disappointing if you’re a Northwestern Wildcats fan. 

Under normal circumstances, going to five with a team like Rutgers would be unfortunate. But losing to Rutgers is literally unheard of. Northwestern accomplished both feats on Sunday.  

First, a disclaimer. Temi Thomas-Ailara going down is nothing short of a disaster. I get it. Given the load she carries for the Wildcats, injury was almost inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less upsetting to watch. Northwestern fans can only pray that she will be healthy again soon. 

But the Wildcats had already dropped the first set and were tight in the second at 22-20 when she had to head to the bench. And she wasn’t on the court when the Wildcats punched back in sets three and four. 

So the fifth set loss – it can’t be pinned on the Thomas-Ailara injury. No, losing to Rutgers really is a new low. Let’s take a look at what happened. 

Rutgers rolled through a 6-point run of its own to take a 7-2 lead, sapping any and all momentum Northwestern carried over from the previous two set wins. Rutgers contributed a couple kills in this run, but three of the points came from errors: Danyelle Williams hit into the block (remember, the Rutgers block), Lexi Pitsas got aced, and Payton Chang, who had replaced starter Kiara McNulty earlier in the match, mishandled a set. 

But like Michigan, Northwestern wasn’t ready to let go yet. It wasn’t pretty, but the Wildcats managed to quash the deficit to just one point at 10-11. Northwestern wasn’t playing well enough to be in control of the set, but they were back in it. 

Or so they thought. Watching the replay, it’s as though saving face after the initial run was all Northwestern wanted. 

But that kind of energy is never enough in volleyball. Rutgers was looking for its first Big Ten win since 2015, while Northwestern was playing not to lose. So the Scarlet Knights nailed two points on attacks mishandled by Lexi Pitsas in left back. Pitsas then got aced, and finally, Ella Grbac swung right into the block (the Rutgers block), and it was all over. 

You have to give kudos to Rutgers for finally pulling off a conference win – it was only their second Big Ten win since joining the conference. As for Northwestern, it’s impossible not pity a team that manages to pull back within one – despite missing an eye-popping 14 serves over the course of the match (including three in the fifth set) – and still fails to close on the fifth set. 

Both of these fifth set matches were lost because the teams were not playing to win. They were playing not to lose. Michigan was right in it with one of the top ten teams in the country. They didn’t have the audacity to say yes, we’re going to win this 2-point battle on our own terms, and their hesitation cost them. 

On the other hand, Northwestern was facing one of the few Big Ten teams it regularly beats. They weren’t playing like they wanted to win, they were playing like they didn’t want to lose. There was no fight or fire towards the end of that match from the purple side, and that’s what gave Rutgers their opportunity. No one should be surprised that they took it.

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