Sometimes it takes a second chance to finish what’s been started.
After going 12-0 in nonconference games to open the year, the MSU volleyball team struggled through a 5-15 Big Ten season, but kept fighting through the end of the season and was rewarded with an invitation to this season’s NCAA Tournament — a second opportunity.
“It was incredible because, to us, our season was over, and then we found out that it wasn’t,” said sophomore middle blocker Kyndra Abron, who was named this week to the First-Team All-Big Ten. “It’s like we’re going to look at it as a new season. Everything in the past doesn’t really matter. This is our chance to start over, and we’re completely ready and capable of it.”
The Spartans travel to Lexington, Ky., for a battle with Kentucky at 7 p.m. Friday. With a win, MSU advances to face the winner of Clemson and Oregon for a Saturday match that would begin at 7 p.m.
After not qualifying for the tournament last season, MSU entered this year with a roster littered with freshmen and sophomores and struggled to find consistency during Big Ten play.
Despite finishing 17-15 on the season and placing in the lower part of the conference, the Spartans gathered big wins against No. 8 Illinois and No. 15 Southern Cal earlier in the season and know they’re capable of winning a big game.
“When you battle every single night, you really feel prepared once you play them,” redshirt sophomore outside hitter Jenilee Rathje said. “We feel so blessed to have this new birth and a second chance, and we can really prove ourselves.”
The last time the team qualified for an NCAA Tournament was in 2007. MSU entered with a 19-13 mark and went up in the first round against a Kentucky squad that possessed a better record. MSU won the match 3-0 and also won the next match against host Dayton to advance to the regional semifinal.
The Spartans have lost four straight games heading into this year’s match, but hung tough against No. 16 Michigan and No. 11 Minnesota, falling 3-2 in both those matches two weeks ago.
Kentucky comes in with a 27-4 record and carries the rank of No. 13. MSU leads the all-time series 4-0 against the Wildcats.
MSU qualified for the 64-team tournament for the third time in four seasons, and with a roster that’s roughly two-thirds freshmen and sophomores, the program seeks to benefit from the experience.
“This was a major step for this young class,” head coach Cathy George said. “(This) is an important step for the program and an important experience for these players as they look to the future.”
The NCAA berth also means a lot for the team’s two seniors, who now have one final shot to add to their career accomplishments and help advance the program. They’ll be faced with a tough environment on the road in an NCAA Tournament game, but will leave it all on the line and draw on the experience of 2007’s strong run.
“This time is extra special,” senior middle blocker Vanessa King said. “It was a slim chance we were going to get in, and it’s my last time, so it’s just really exciting.”
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