After nearly a decade at MSU, Cathy George is in special territory.
By building the MSU volleyball program into a serious Big Ten contender and starting the season off with the best record of any Spartan team since 1996, the volleyball head coach has the opportunity to place the program among the national elite – a path not unlike the one taken years ago by men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo.
Now after three losses to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, respectfully, it’s only commonplace to wonder if the Spartans (17-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten) are more a mirage than the high-octane team many were praising a week ago.
Nevertheless, George addressed her team after falling to the Wolverines in four sets (25-20, 22-25, 24-26, 30-32) on Wednesday before a record crowd at Jenison Field House, reiterating the team needs to make fewer mistakes and return to its confident style of volleyball if it wants to break through the national barrier.
“It isn’t just like we all of a sudden forgot how to serve or do certain things,” George said. “We have to be bold enough to do that. We have to be comfortable with the position we find ourselves in at Michigan State. We’re really moving up the rankings — we have to be ready to push through to that next step.”
Following an opening set victory, the Spartans dropped three-consecutive sets to Michigan, including a heartbreaking final set that went back and forth before the Wolverines were able to find the match point on a kill by outside hitter Lexi Erwin.
In a game where the Spartans lost three sets by an average of a little more than two points, service errors weigh heavy in the outcome. A major point of emphasis for George in the loss was the amount of service errors the Spartans had, giving away 18 points in comparison to just eight by the Wolverines.
Returning to the locker room in defeat, junior libero Kori Moster said there’s anger that comes along with a disappointing loss to an in-state rival, especially when the Spartans made as many unforced errors as they did.
“We were mad,” Moster said. “Everybody knows and I think it’s because we didn’t do the things we knew we could do. We didn’t stick to our game, we made errors and that’s on us as a team. So that’s frustrating, especially playing Michigan when there’s 7,000 people here.”
As the Spartans flew close to breaking through to the national elite early in Big Ten season, the challenge now stands to bounce back from a tough stretch.
But as far as in-conference opponents go, hosting the Hoosiers hardly pales to the intensity of Jenison on Wednesday.
Fighting back tears, senior middle blocker Alexis Mathews described the mood in the locker room as “somber,” knowing the Spartans are capable of better but now will have to wait 34 days to prove it for the State Pride Flag.
“Obviously that’s a very tough loss to have and everybody’s just frustrated because, as a whole, we didn’t do as well as we knew we could,” Mathews said.
And George won’t soon let the team forget how it felt.
“We need to be accountable to each other and we need to trust in each other and that’s how you play good volleyball – by relying on the balance of your team,” George said. “We need to get back to it.”