Michigan stuns Stanford to make first final four

BERKELEY, Calif. – It was a "normal" day for the Michigan volleyball team as the Wolverines burned the many, many hours they had to kill before Saturday night's regional final match against second-ranked Stanford.

But there would be no stewing or stressing.

"We had a lot of day to fill," said Michigan coach Mark Rosen. "We were very relaxed, very loose. Today was completely like any other day."

Except that when it was over, Michigan was headed to the final four. Which is not at all like any other day in program history.

The Wolverines (27-11) earned their first trip to the NCAA final four late Saturday with a 3-1 win over the Cardinal (20-25, 25-20, 25-20, 25-20). Michigan will join Texas, Oregon and Penn State in Louisville, Ky., next week to play for a national championship.

"It is so exciting," said Michigan junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin, who was named the region's Most Outstanding Player. "The energy in the locker room after the game was insane."

To get somewhere it's never been, the Michigan volleyball team had to do something probably not a lot of people in Haas Pavilion thought it could do. The Wolverines had to turn the momentum against second-ranked Stanford after a first-set loss, and then once they had it, they had to punch the gas pedal.

They did it with a great service game (including five aces), strong slide-hitting and the ability to keep the vaunted, but youthful Cardinal off-balance and on the defensive.

Erwin finished with 23 kills and 16 digs in the match. Jennifer Cross had 15 kills and nine digs. Cross blamed the first-set loss on jitters. Erwin said she thought she was "timid and intimidated" to start.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The Wolverines pack it in for a group hug after their win.

"Once Mark told us to start swinging higher and be aggressive, that helped so much," Erwin said. "We were kind of waiting back in the first game and in the second game came out punching."

As a result, the young Cardinal (30-4) were knocked out in front of a partisan crowd that got more quiet with each set. With four freshmen playing major roles on the court, Stanford missed a chance at a first final four trip since 2008. The Cardinal lost it because they couldn't pass as well as they needed to, didn't block as well as they should have. And four service errors in the final set hurt badly as well. Carly Wopat led the Cardinal with 13 kills, while Brittany Howard posted 11 kills and 15 digs.

It has been an emotional season for the Cardinal. After the stunning death of teammate Sam Wopat (Carly's twin sister) in the spring, Stanford regrouped and rebuilt a team of bright young stars and found a great groove after losing back-to-back matches to Hawaii and Penn State in late August. From that point on, Stanford lost only once more, to USC, before Saturday night's upset.

"Michigan played very well," Carly Wopat said. "It was a fight out there. I'm proud of my team for playing for every point and it just got away from us. Sometimes that happens. It hadn't happened yet this year in my opinion, so it was bad timing."

Michigan was the underdog Saturday night and might be playing the underappreciated card a little bit after earning what many will consider a surprise ticket to the final four.

"This is a group that has really come together in the past month and a half and become one of the best teams I've been a part of," Rosen said. "We might not be the biggest name or the highest profile, but this is a team that is playing as well as anyone in the country right now and I'm excited about that."

Cross said the Wolverines will go to Louisville with their faith in one another in strong shape.

"We all believe in it," Cross said. "We are such a great team, we don't need to have all-stars or all these big names in the media all the time. I knew we were going back to Louisville because I believe in our team."

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