In the midst of a nine-game winning streak and driven by the play of its top scorer — sophomore Jenilee Rathje — the MSU volleyball team appeared poised for a solid Big Ten run last season when Rathje suddenly went down with a torn ACL in a September game against Ohio State.
The injury to her right knee forced Rathje to miss the rest of the season, and the team finished 15-16 as its younger players received their first taste of the Big Ten’s level of competition.
This season, however, Rathje is healthy and said she’s grown into more of an emotional leader because of the injury.
“Last year, we kind of struggled, and it was real hard to see my team struggle and know that I couldn’t really help them,” Rathje said. “I knew something was wrong, but once the doctor told me I tore my ACL, it was so hard to handle. … I’ve definitely come out a lot stronger physically and as an emotional leader also.”
The road to recovery spanned several months and Rathje could do little to no physical activity immediately following her injury. Fortunately, for both her and the team, however, the sophomore earned a redshirt that allows her to play an extra season.
Nevertheless, her young teammates were forced to play without one of their most experienced teammates in a tough Big Ten stretch.
“All throughout our season I was really limited, and my volleyball workout was watching and learning from the sidelines,” Rathje said. “I had to learn different ways to help them from the sidelines, so that was a struggle for me.”
When it came time for spring volleyball season, Rathje healed enough to start practicing and progressed to the point where she could decide if she felt good enough to play each practice.
Now, she’s returned to her former self, helping lead the team to a 12-0 nonconference start and is second on the team in kills with 123.
The player who was called on most to fill in for Rathje last season, junior Megan Schatzle, is first on the team in kills this year.
“She’s a huge threat for our team, and I knew it was my time to step up,” Schatzle said. “I did step up and it helped me get a little bit of experience.”
Filling in for Rathje was a job occupied by more than one player and the team tried to make due the best it could.
By November of last season, Rathje still led the team in kills, despite not playing a single game in October.
“She was one of two returners that had started for our team in the Sweet 16, so she has that experience and can help bring it to the younger players,” MSU head coach Cathy George said. “It speaks volumes. She’s allowed us the opportunity to try different things and use her versatility.”
On the court, Rathje plays with a lot of energy and is a threat to break out at any time. She was one of several Spartans that helped key the upset win against No. 13 Southern Cal to open the season, and was named the tournament MVP of the Clemson Classic last weekend.
“We’re glad to have her back,” Schatzle said. “She has three more years so that’s going to be a huge threat for the team.”
Rathje will look to continue her solid play this weekend as the Spartans open Big Ten play with road games Friday at Purdue and Saturday at Indiana. Considering how the team has fared thus far and the amount of experience the players have earned, Rathje said she’s excited about the team’s potential.
“I guess that’s encouraging that we’re 12-0, but we still have room for improvement,” Rathje said. “It was such a blessing that my recovery was so quick and it’s been going so well.”
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