Becoming a national contender
Volleyball looks to get back on track with win tonight
Head coach Cathy George and senior setter Kristen Kelsay discuss the upcoming match against Michigan and the loss last year in the Sweet Sixteen.
For the No. 10 MSU volleyball team, the memory of falling to Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament last year hasn’t faded.
The Wolverines ended an MSU season that had been marked by success: defeating three top-10 teams, finishing No. 16 in the AVCA coaches poll, knocking off defending national champion UCLA in the tournament, and winning 25 matches — the program’s highest win total since 1996.
Senior setter Kristen Kelsay said the feeling of defeat has been burning for the team since the Sweet Sixteen loss.
“I know for me, that’s something that’s been driving me all spring, all summer, is that five minutes in that locker room,” Kelsay said. “I have flashback memories of that.”
Defeat is often a necessary step on the path to success. And judging from volleyball’s hot start to the 2013 season, they’ve taken the Sweet Sixteen loss, internalized it and channeled it into coming back stronger. Tonight, the team will have a critical chance for redemption when it faces No. 17 Michigan at home.
Head coach Cathy George speaks with her team at the end of practice on Oct. 22, 2013 at Jenison Field House. The team was prepping for a home matchup against the Michigan Wolverines on Oct. 23, 2013. Khoa Nguyen/The State News
Head coach Cathy George talks to her players during practice on Oct. 22, 2013 at Jenison Field House. The team was prepping for a home matchup against the Michigan Wolverines on Oct. 23, 2013. Khoa Nguyen/The State News
Junior libero Kori Moster watches senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski dive for the ball during practice on Oct. 22, 2013 at Jenison Field House. The team is prepping for a home matchup against the Michigan Wolverines on Oct. 23, 2013. Khoa Nguyen/The State News
Junior libero Kori Moster declared at the beginning of the year that the volleyball team has its sights on a Final Four this year, and the torrid start to the season has affirmed that goal.
This year’s team (17-3 overall, 6-2 Big Ten) is on track to be the best Spartan team in head coach Cathy George’s nine-year tenure.
It’s been been a long climb for seniors such as Kelsay.
During her freshman year, the team fell one game short of qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
This year, the team has had its best season start in more than a decade and a half.
“Being here from freshman year to my senior year, our class has kinda seen the growth of the program,” Kelsay said. “From our freshman year not making the tournament, being one win out, and every year kind of stepping off last year’s success and getting better.”
It could be a special year for a Spartan team that has benefited from strong veteran play and young players stepping in and filling key roles.
The Spartans will take on Michigan tonight at home at 7 p.m. Although it is not clear which team will prevail, Michigan certainly will be facing a different team from last year.
George said her team will enter Jenison Field House prepared to fight.
“It’s an opportunity for us and it’s an opportunity for them,” Coach George said. “We just need to put our game out there.”
Becoming a Contender
MSU started Big Ten season 6-0, the best start in conference play since 1996, but recently has weathered a rough patch. Before losing two conference matches to Minnesota and Wisconsin last weekend, they were ranked No. 5, which is the highest since being ranked No. 3 in the 1996 preseason poll.
They’ve upset powerhouses such as Penn State, who was No. 1 before falling to then-No. 15 MSU on the road last month. The triumph set a tone that has carried through the season.
Moster acknowledged that the underdog mindset the team has embraced in years past no longer applies.
“For us, I think after beating a team like Penn State, everyone in the nation takes notice of you,” Moster said. “Now we’re not able to be this underlying team that’s gonna come out and take people by surprise. People are knowing that we are a very good team that is capable of beating anybody in this nation.”
There’s been a mental toughness that has helped the Spartans overcome several difficult matches. George has credited the starting seniors — Kelsay, senior middle blocker Alexis Mathews, and senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski — for setting the climate for the rest of the team.
“They have always been committed players who are ready to make things happen,” George said Tuesday. “It’s been that determination over the years that has brought us to where we are now.”
At the same time, freshmen are stepping in to fill key roles roles. Freshman middle blocker Allyssah Fitterer and freshman outside hitter Chloe Reinig have cracked the starting rotation, and have held their own in a competitive Big Ten conference.
George said it’s a lot for a freshman to to adjust to the pace of the season along with college classes, but Fitterer and Reinig have both risen to the occasion.
In an interview Tuesday, Reinig admitted that it’s a big learning curve, but she’s become a reliable second option to Wicinski, who could enter the record books as one of the top 25 kill-getters of all time this season.
“A lot of things came at me fast, and I think I’m just getting used to those things more and more now,” Reinig said. “I’m definitely taking on a bigger role on the team, just being a little louder and taking control in the front row. It wasn’t something I couldn’t handle though, so I’m getting it.”
Mathews said she hasn’t seen a lot of nervousness from the younger players, but instead a fast adjustment.
“Even with our younger players, they’re still doing a lot of veteran-like moves,” Mathews said. “And of course the veterans are doing what they know what they can do. It’s all working together really well.”
After stumbling last weekend, the volleyball team sees tonight’s match against Michigan as a prime opportunity to get back on the right track.
“Having the opportunity on a Wednesday after two rough road matches, I think (it) is perfect timing for them to come in on Wednesday,” Kelsay said. “An emotional game, an intense game, to re-spark that fire.”
Compared to most games this season, the two straight losses appear to be a blip on the radar. They totaled 66 attacking errors and 28 service errors, ultimately digging their own grave against lower-ranked competition.
“For the most part, that wasn’t Michigan State volleyball, and we want to make sure we get back to doing what we can do and what we’re capable of doing, and going back to the old recipe for how we play and how we’ve developed our program,” George said.
Michigan might see a more vulnerable team after last week’s losses, and the seniors know what is at stake.
“Whatever they think coming in tomorrow doesn’t matter,” Kelsay said. “It doesn’t change how we’re going to come out and fight.”