With its sights set on earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the MSU volleyball team said it now is viewing every match as an opportunity to prove why it deserves to see postseason tournament action.
The Spartans (9-6 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) are looking to recover from two conference losses to No. 4 Penn State and Ohio State last weekend when they host No. 6 Illinois at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and Wisconsin at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Jenison Field House. While head coach Cathy George credited the team with hard-fought matches, she recognized that the team’s attacking skills still need to be refined.
“It’s really just pulling our team together and maximizing our strengths,” she said. “We need to really work on our attackers being more effective than they were last week. We really didn’t feel that our offense was in full gear, and we really need to get that going.”
The Fighting Illini (12-2, 4-0) and the Spartans’ only recent shared opponents are the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes, and Illinois defeated both teams 3-2 and 3-0, respectively. MSU split its two matches against Illinois last season, first winning 3-2 and then suffering a 3-0 defeat.
This week in practice, the Spartans have been practicing different defensive strategies to keep the Fighting Illini on their toes and break down their attack. The drills the team has been doing include pursuing the second ball after a deflected first one to keep it up in the air, junior defensive specialist Carli Weiler said.
“Illinois is a very physical team,” Weiler said. “We know that their outsides are very strong as well as their middle hitters. They’re just a very mature, experienced and physical team, so if we can just keep balls off the floor and keep them frustrated and play scrappy defense, forcing them to make errors will be to our advantage.”
MSU is behind Illinois in their all-time series, 40-22, and the Fighting Illini are returning an experienced starting lineup. George singled out two-time All-American outside hitter Laura DeBruler, outside hitter Michelle Bartsch, and recent transfer from Florida outside hitter Colleen Ward, among others, as major threats to the Spartans’ defense.
“They’ve had a lot of the same starters for the last three to four years, and they have a great defensive effort,” George said. “They return the top blocker from the last two years in the nation in (middle blocker) Johannah Bangert, so they’re very solid.”
Despite not being ranked, Wisconsin should prove to be another challenging conference match, senior outside hitter Megan Schatzle said. The Spartans also split their two matches against the Badgers last season, both with 3-0 scores.
“Wisconsin is not exactly the same (as) Illinois in what their strengths are altogether, but you prepare for both teams on the weekend,” George said. “You try to become solid in your game so you can score, but there are differences between the two of them.”
Aside from the different styles of play, the Spartans said they play to use similar offenses against both teams, starting with serving tougher to force their opponents to make bad passes.
“When you serve tough, you jeopardize their passing as well as their offense,” Weiler said. “If we can keep them out of system as much as possible, it gives our blockers a chance to see where the hitter is going and slow them down.
“If we’re not serving tough, then they can have easy passes and run a fast offense, (making) it hard for our defense to read around our block.”
Overall, MSU said it is going into the weekend open-minded and knowing that two wins are possible if it sticks to the game plan.
“We’re just going to play hard because we have nothing to lose,” Schatzle said. “We’re the underdog every single game in the Big Ten, (and) we’re expected to lose.
“I think we play our best when we don’t feel like we have to win or feel like we have to get this win or we’re not going to make it into the tournament. So I feel like we’re just going to go out there and play hard and play with energy.”
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