Monday, October 3, 2022

Sights set high for spikers

August 23, 2001
Former middle hitter Jessica Sanborn spikes the ball in a game against Indiana last season at Breslin Student Events Center. The team hopes to advance further than last year’s second round loss in the NCAA Tournament. —

The MSU volleyball team has its eyes on winning the 2001 Big Ten championship and disproving the league coaches who picked the Spartans to finish fifth in the conference in preseason rankings.

This year’s squad, led by co-captains Lisa Ashton, a senior, and sophomore Nikki Colson, wants to avenge last year’s second-round NCAA Tournament loss to UCLA with a mix of experience and young talent.

“We have the physical talent (to win the Big Ten),” head coach Chuck Erbe said. “The question is how fast the new players can integrate themselves into your system.

“We have a good core of returning players. It matters how well we blend in.”

Erbe, entering his ninth year at the helm of the Spartan program, said the mix of young players and proven veterans will help the team this season and in the future.

“Erin Hartley is a leader of the team as a player,” Erbe said of his Preseason All-Big Ten outside hitter. “Our two most experienced players are Erin Hartley, who will be a four-year starter, and Angela Morley, who will be a three-year starter.

“We have three freshmen in Kim Schram, Diana Steplyk and possibly Michelle Kopka, that are in a position to compete for significant playing time at outside hitter.”

Erbe was particularly impressed with Colson last year and is expecting big things from her this season.

“Nikki Colson - the team is hers,” Erbe said. “She was one of the best setters in the nation in high school and she has the potential to be the best setter ever at MSU.”

Erbe said sophomore middle hitter Jenny Rood, one of the best freshmen in the nation last season, will play a big part in the Spartans’ championship quest. Erbe also said junior Kyla Smith is “coming into her own as an outside hitter.”

Besides the mix of young and experienced players, MSU will have one of the most athletic teams in the country.

“We have five players that can jump-touch 10 feet,” Erbe said. “We won’t be out-athleted by anyone in the Big Ten.

“The question is, can we manage the mental and emotional responsibilities that come with competing for a Big Ten championship? We haven’t been in that position for four years.”

MSU’s schedule - which is always peppered with highly rated Big Ten squads - opens with many rigorous nonconference matches that Erbe said will be “a stern test for the Big Ten.”

The Spartans travel to Columbia for the South Carolina Classic, which features Wake Forest, South Carolina and Jacksonville State, on Sept. 14-15. That trip follows the MSU Volleyball Classic on Aug. 31-Sept. 1, which will have Dayton, Western Michigan, Auburn and Denver traveling to East Lansing.

“The Big Ten will absolutely be the toughest part (of the schedule). But Dayton and Western Michigan will be tough too,” Erbe said.

Erbe said those two teams will have extra motivation to beat the Spartans because they have nothing to lose and will gain national recognition by beating a Big Ten school.

As for the fifth-place league prediction, Erbe said it’s a low estimate of the team’s abilities.

“Looking from the outside, people see that we lost starters and they think ‘this is not going to be a championship season.’”

The team has two televised matches this season, which will let people see for themselves if MSU is on course for a championship year. The Spartans’ Nov. 16 match at Ohio State will air on ESPN2 and the Nov. 17 match vs. Penn State will be broadcast by Fox Sports Chicago. Both matches will be televised Nov. 18, with the Ohio State match at 2 p.m. and the Penn State match at 4 p.m.

“TV is the major key to anything you do in sports,” Erbe said. “Without TV, you’re nothing.”

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