Entering last season with only three upperclassmen and significant holes to fill from the previous year’s NCAA Tournament team, the MSU volleyball program turned to a promising freshman class to step in and make contributions immediately.
Although the Spartans finished 15-16 this past season and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the second time in head coach Cathy George’s tenure, the experience is paying off, based on what the Spartan sophomores have been able to accomplish this season.
The class has collected two tournament MVP honors and played an intricate part in MSU’s upset win against No. 15 Southern California to start the season, as well as having a hand in MSU’s eight other victories on the way to a 9-0 start.
“We had up to five freshman players on the court at a time last year against teams that were much older,” George said. “Having done it once prepares them how to handle it better for the upcoming season.”
To say the Spartans have been getting significant contributions from their underclassmen would be an understatement. Sophomores Natalie Emro, Kyndra Abron and Becca Zlabis are heavily relied upon, while Carli Weiler, Mandi Karaba and a handful of other underclassmen have made their presence felt this year.
Together, Emro, Abron and Zlabis have accounted for one-third of the Spartans’ kills.
“We had a lot of ups and downs because we had to figure out how to stay consistent,” Abron said. “In high school, we kind of had one big game that we had to get ready for, but here, it’s like every game is a big game.”
Abron, who was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after the first weekend of the season, posted a .526 hitting percentage during the MSU Showcase and earned tournament MVP honors. Emro won a tournament MVP title this past weekend at the UIC Invitational by totaling 104 assists in the Spartans’ three victories.
The class faced its share of bumps in the road last year, but entering the final weekend of nonconference play, it should be better prepared to handle the Big Ten schedule.
“Last year, we didn’t know how to play on the road and play back-to-back games,” Zlabis said. “This year, we’re ready to do that.”
MSU travels to Clemson this weekend to battle Furman and Clemson on Friday and Presbyterian on Saturday, then begins Big Ten play Sept. 25 at Purdue.
The Spartans also are receiving significant contributions from redshirt sophomore Jenilee Rathje. Rathje started a year before the other members of the class of 2012, but is nevertheless a big part of the team’s success.
Her 92 kills are second on the team, and Rathje has been solid after coming back from a knee injury that sidelined her for part of last year.
“People say we’re young because of all the sophomores and underclassmen we have,” Rathje said. “But knowing that we have experience and have played in the Big Ten, we know we’re not young.”
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