With two of its starting defenders injured and unable to participate in recent matches, members of the MSU volleyball have been moved into unfamiliar positions.
Junior outside hitter Becca Zlabis has been forced to step up and take on her teammates’ defensive roles in addition to her attacking responsibilities. She said she has welcomed this novel role as a challenge and has taken charge of the back row.
“She really had to take on a lot of responsibility, and I think she responded well,” head coach Cathy George said. “I think that she identified with that (defensive role) and was more decisive and aggressive and understood that she needs to raise her level.”
This season, the Spartans (8-3) have played without junior defensive specialist Carli Weiler because of an injury sustained to her extensor carpi ulnaris tendon in her left wrist. MSU also recently lost the support of senior defensive specialist Allyson Karaba because of a right shoulder injury that occurred during the Sept. 11 loss to Eastern Michigan.
Because MSU’s back row defense has taken such a hit this season, Zlabis has been instructed by her coach to take control of the back line and has recorded the second-highest total digs for the season with 105.
“She did awesome as far as passing, and that’s probably the most important thing if you want to run a consistent offense,” Weiler said. “I was keeping the passing stats the whole time I was out, and she was passing phenomenally. I definitely think she conquered what she needed to and did a really good job of passing and playing defense.”
Despite her absence in the last two matches, Karaba still leads the team in digs with 123.
The new-found role has helped Zlabis evolve into a more complete player, George said.
“I think that was the great thing for her development as a player, because there’s no saying, ‘She can’t do that when all of our defenders get back,’” George said. “And that’s actually going to make us even more of a defensive force in the conference.”
The entire team had to make adjustments in its playing because of injuries, but Zlabis said that also provided the team with an opportunity to step up and gain a new perspective on the game.
“I think that the blockers realized how important it is to set up a good block since we don’t have Allyson (Karaba) and all of our defenders healthy,” she said. “So, they need to be easy to read.”
After being out of the team’s opening matches this season, Weiler participated in her first match last Friday in MSU’s 3-0 victory over Toledo. She only played a short amount of time, however.
But with Weiler’s return, she and Zlabis can work together on the Spartans’ defense. Zlabis said the rest of the players will be able to focus more on their usual positions in their comfort zone, rather than making excuses in difficult matches.
“I’m just hoping to kind of take a little of that responsibility off (Zlabis’) back as far as passing,” Weiler said. “I know she’s had a lot of responsibility now that (Karaba) and I have been out, and she’s been doing a great job (adapting).
“Now that we’re getting into the Big Ten, obviously everything is going to get a lot tougher. We’re going to get exposed more, so just having another primary passer in there will help us solidify our ball control from the first pass.”
George said she hopes that Zlabis and Weiler’s combined defensive efforts will allow the team as a whole to develop its defending skills, and she anticipates her team’s future performances. Together, the two will be able to lead the team through its Big Ten season, which opens this weekend.
“(Weiler) is really good at reading and getting digs that we can run a transition off of, which is important,” Zlabis said. “I think she’ll definitely contribute to the back row.”
Recently in practice, the Spartans have been focusing on their organization for digging, keeping the ball up and returning it for a rally, so MSU said Weiler’s influence will be noticeable.
Because Weiler’s wrist still is recovering, the team said it expects her to play and perform well this weekend, but it will take her participation on a day-to-day basis. With that, the Spartans also will turn to sophomore defensive specialist Mandi Karaba for support, and George said she has improved her play as well.
With their team coming back together, the Spartans’ Big Ten season begins on Friday when they host No. 14 Minnesota and then Iowa on Saturday. Both matches will be played at Breslin Center.
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“(Weiler) now just needs to aid (Zlabis) and just get us a little bit more into a system,” George said. “If (Zlabis) can focus on still having a wide range and (Weiler) having a wide range, we should be a better defensive team altogether. There’s plenty of balls to be had where they both can have stellar defensive efforts.”
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