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Spartans prepared for rivalry matchup against. No. 15 Michigan

October 12, 2010

Not since she was a freshman has Becca Zlabis seen her team take down Michigan. But the junior outside hitter said she expects the MSU volleyball team’s preparation this week to put itself in a position to do some damage against its in-state rival.

“That in-state rivalry is a huge aspect of our team,” she said.

“I think that it’s probably going to be the most competitive match that we’re going to play this year. It’s Michigan — our football team just beat them, so now we have to beat them, too.”

The Spartans (10-7 overall, 2-4 Big Ten) will have their first of two chances this season to be victorious over the No. 15 Wolverines at 7 p.m. tonight in Ann Arbor.

Playing at Cliff Keen Arena, the team said it expects a dangerous, aggressive opponent and a wild crowd that it will have to overcome to maintain focus.

To prepare for this excited atmosphere, the Spartans have adjusted their practice environment accordingly.

“We always prepare the week of our Michigan match by playing loud music and heckling because their atmosphere is crazy — probably one of the craziest that we get to play in,” Zlabis said.

In addition to the intensity that comes with the rivalry, the Wolverines’ (16-2, 5-1) major threats include outside hitter Alex Hunt and two-time All-American setter Lexi Zimmerman.

Zimmerman’s triple-double (43 assists, 13 digs and 13 kills) led the team to victory over then-No. 6 Illinois on Oct. 9.

“(Zimmerman) runs the show,” head coach Cathy George said. “She’s a great setter who really is able to run her offense no matter how bad the passing is. … We have to play very good volleyball at Michigan in order to win.”

If MSU hopes to defeat its rival, it needs to break the Wolverines’ attacking system and force their middle blockers out of position, senior outside hitter Megan Schatzle said. With such strong players returning to U-M’s team, the Spartans will have to match their opponent’s intensity and level of play.

“We definitely (need to) work on staying neutral and fronting the middles,” Schatzle said. “They have great outside hitters … and they have a few new hitters, so we’re definitely going to focus on blocking and how we’re going to defend that.”

Despite leading the all-time series, 46-33-1, the Spartans fell twice to U-M last season, first by a 3-0 score at Breslin Center and then 3-2 in Ann Arbor.

As senior defensive specialist Allyson Karaba returns from the injured list, the team said its chemistry is coming back together and it hopes that will allow the defense to stand strong against U-M’s attackers.

“You’re seeing an increase in our defensive ability and I think just in terms of our team playing a lot more competitively,” George said.

“I think some of that is the addition of (Karaba), and some of it is just our team deciding that we’re going to toughen up, and we’re going to get after (our opponents).”

On the attacking side of the court, Zlabis said that her team wants to equal U-M’s tough serving and is practicing different strategies, including serving under pressure.

“It’s really important that we focus on serving this week because we want to win the serve-pass battle against them,” she said.

“If we just get them into an easy system every time with easy serves, they’re just going to put it down our throats.”

As the anticipation and emphasis of the rivalry match builds, the Spartans’ full roster is ready to get its first win in two years.

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“Now (that) we have our whole team back … we’re better than ever right now, and it’s going to be a good game,” Schatzle said.

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