Despite splitting two matches in its Big Ten-opening weekend at Breslin Center, the MSU volleyball team still is motivated to have a successful conference season amidst its tough competition junior outside hitter Jenilee Rathje said.
The Big Ten has four teams ranked and four more receiving votes in the Bison/American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, and the Spartans (9-4, 1-1 Big Ten) are ready to challenge each one.
In the first match of the weekend, No. 14 Minnesota (11-3, 1-1) shut out MSU 3-0, despite the Golden Gophers playing without their All-American middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer. The Spartans came back the following day to take down Iowa, 3-1.
“We came out (this weekend) just a little tentative, so I think that was a good lesson for us,” Rathje said. “In the Big Ten, we’re used to big kills that we have to dig, but we kind of had to make adjustments by running the balls down rather than getting a big dig off their kills.”
Leading the Spartans’ attack this weekend was Rathje, who nailed 13 kills against Minnesota and 15 against Iowa. Junior outside hitter Kyndra Abron also had 15 against the Hawkeyes.
“(Rathje) had a huge weekend for us, and she has been stellar,” head coach Cathy George said. “She’s really taken to that middle attacking position, and she’s hard to stop because of her vertical leap and athleticism.”
Hidden by the final score, MSU was neck-and-neck with the Golden Gophers. The two teams saw 29 ties and 13 lead changes in the three sets.
In each of the sets, however, Minnesota always managed to take away the Spartans’ leads and stay one step ahead.
In addition to Rathje’s contributions, senior outside hitter Megan Schatzle had 12 kills, while freshman setter Kristen Kelsay and Emro added 20 and 18 assists, respectively.
“Our setters did a really good job of putting all of us in good positions,” Rathje said. “With the way our offense is, we’re pretty well distributed, so we get a lot of one-on-ones.”
Despite the Spartans’ having 42 total kills on the match — two more than Minnesota — they also had 21 attacks and 16 unforced errors, which prevented them from taking control of the sets.
“I think we could have stepped up in terms of hustle plays and getting the balls up that we would normally get played,” Emro said. “We were letting balls drop that were easily playable.”
In MSU’s four-set win over the Hawkeyes (5-6, 0-2), it looked like the previous match outcome was going to repeat itself after Iowa took a quick lead and won the first set, 25-21. The Spartans said they stuck to their game plan, despite losing the opening set, and were able to win the next three sets and even their conference record.
“I think there were a lot of rough spots still (against Iowa), but we had a better fighting spirit there at the end,” George said. “That’s what we need to capitalize on.”
Emro recorded 24 assists, and senior setter Nicole Peter added 22. Emro also was right behind Abron and Rathje with eight kills. Junior outside hitter Becca Zlabis and junior libero Carli Weiler manned the Spartans’ defense with 16 and 14 digs on the night, respectively.
Although MSU came out with a win against Iowa, the team had 17 unforced errors, and said there is plenty of room for improvement for the rest of the season.
Specifically, the Spartans have been working on defense and keeping the ball up; and that’s what they’ll continue to do, players said.
“We really want to see a better transition game, a little better defense to offense and see how we can stay in the rallies a little bit longer through defensive effort,” George said.
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