After splitting its home weekend set, almost earning a conference sweep, the MSU volleyball team feels it is stepping in the right direction.
The Spartans lost 3-2 to No. 6 Illinois on Friday, but rebounded to defeat Wisconsin in five sets Saturday night at Jenison Field House.
MSU (10-7 overall, 2-4 Big Ten) took Illinois down to the wire and responded the next night with a win. The confidence the team gained may pay dividends later on in conference play, freshman setter Kristen Kelsay said.
“Not only did we take No. (6) in the nation — fought them hard, almost closed that game out — but we responded (Saturday) with a win,” Kelsay said. “If we can carry this momentum throughout the rest of the Big Ten season, it’s going to be great.”
In the Friday opener, the Spartans battled the same Illinois (13-2, 5-0) team that took down perennial power and then-No. 2 Penn State earlier this season. MSU held a two sets to one advantage but fell short in the fourth set, 25-15.
The back and forth fifth set had six score ties, but MSU came up two points shy, losing 15-13.
“It was a very physical match and we were very close, but at the end of the match I don’t think we played with as much aggressiveness as you’re going to need to play with to beat a No. 6 Illinois,” head coach Cathy George said.
Senior outside hitter Megan Schatzle said the loss was emotional, but provided another learning experience.
“We played our hearts out, it was (sixth) in the nation, we knew we had to give everything,” she said. “We knew we could beat them. It was a great learning experience and we’re going to take that into the rest of the season.”
Junior outside hitters Jenilee Rathje and Becca Zlabis led the way with 14 kills apiece and junior setter Natalie Emro dished out 28 assists, but MSU committed 29 errors.
“We played really good and if we would have had less unforced errors we would have had them (Friday),” Kelsay said. “We know if we play volleyball like that all the time we’re going to be a really good team.”
The following night, MSU came out of the gates strong against Wisconsin, taking the first two sets, 25-18 each. After the intermission, the Badgers stormed back to take the next two, 25-17 each.
“I was a little disappointed in games three and four to let Wisconsin back in,” George said. “I think that giving them a little bit of momentum was something that we did not want to do, but we went ahead and did it anyway.”
The fifth set was deadlocked at 10 apiece, but MSU came out of a timeout with key blocks and took the next five of six points to win, 15-11.
“We gave some blocking matchups,” George said of the timeout huddle. “We gave them an idea of what we thought they were going to do and (Wisconsin) did do that.”
Schatzle, who had 12 kills along with Rathje, said she will take the win. MSU cut down on the number of errors from Illinois, from 29 to 23.
“It wasn’t the prettiest,” Schatzle said. “We won the first two games, should have finished it in three or four, but you know what, we got a win and getting a win in the Big Ten is huge.”
MSU’s ability to bounce back from a tough loss tested the team’s resiliency, George said.
“That was a big test for us, to come back — in my opinion — come back from that emotional loss from the night before,” she said. “Could we come out with intensity, could we come out the way we needed to or were we going to come out flat?
“You expend so much on one night and you have to come back and bring it the next night, so I thought our team started off very strong.”
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The Spartans currently are tied for seventh place in the Big Ten but said they gained some motivation from the split.
“We knew we needed a win this weekend, definitely to stay in it,” Schatzle said. “It gave us motivation to know that we played that good against Illinois, we can beat anybody in the Big Ten.”
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