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Tough season ends on high note for volleyball team

December 1, 2010

Michelle Martinelli

Cathy George had the right mindset all along, even with the roller coaster ride she was on this season.

“Stay together, work together, fight together and win together.”

Battling injuries, adversity and Big Ten competition, the head coach of the MSU volleyball team was faced with more challenges than she could imagine. After falling into a six-match losing streak, the Spartans (15-16 overall, 7-13 Big Ten) pulled themselves up by their shoelaces and finished the season 4-2.

“Keeping the mindset right down the stretch was important because it would have been easy to cash it in as a bad year for the team,” George said. “But our team kept working and kept improving and kept fighting, which speaks volumes to the team and the people that we have on this team and the character of this team.”

Plunging to 3-11 in the Big Ten after a loss to Penn State on Nov. 6, the Spartans had six matches to turn their season around.

They stormed out against Iowa and nabbed their first conference road win since 2008. Shutting out the Hawkeyes, 3-0, proved to be the motivational spark MSU needed to take control of the season.

But the real measuring stick for the Spartans’ progress had yet to come.

The Spartans had a chance to claim a win against Michigan for the first time since 2008. A chance for revenge, a chance for redemption against their foe, who served up a 3-1 loss for MSU earlier in the season, and a chance to do it on Breslin Center’s court.

Not only did they win, the Spartans played like it was a national championship match in their 3-0 shutout against the Wolverines, who hardly got a spike through redshirt freshman middle blocker Alexis Mathews and junior outside hitter Kyndra Abron.

MSU’s performance in front of a record-breaking crowd of 6,824 gave it four set wins on the season, compared to U-M’s three, and the team brought the State Pride Flag back to East Lansing for the first time since 2006.

“It was so much fun, and the atmosphere was amazing,” junior outside hitter Becca Zlabis said. “Beating Michigan and getting our State Pride Flag back was a big deal.”

The Spartans’ excitement and momentum propelled them to close out their season with a grueling 3-2 win at Northwestern.

While disappointing to see the Spartans’ NCAA Tournament dreams slip from their hands by not having a .500 record, they should hold their heads high with the way they turned their season around.

Standing out as a true Spartan leader, senior outside hitter Megan Schatzle dominated in her final Big Ten matches. She finished the season with four consecutive double-doubles, inspiring her teammates to push through to the end.

George said she’s “optimistic” for the future with her returning players. Rightly so, and the Big Ten should be worried.

The Spartans’ five juniors – five stunners – will return as the new commanders.

MSU’s All-Big Ten team member, junior outside hitter Jenilee Rathje, with her 297 kills, became the 17th Spartan to reach 1,000 kills in a career.

Stats aside, anyone who’s watched MSU in action knows Rathje’s enthusiasm after a won point is enough to boost her team and the crowd.

And Zlabis, the do-everything member of the team, has a powerful swing on attack, but also filled in on defense when the lineup changed. The only Spartan to play in all 116 sets, she finished the season as a top defender, leading the team with 304 digs. She was one of many forced to adjust to a new role, but by the end, it looked like she had been playing defense all along.

As another attacking force, Abron’s arm can power the ball to the backcourt like no one else. I only can imagine how fast a radar gun would measure her spikes, and Big Ten middle blockers should be terrified.

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Add junior setter Natalie Emro’s behind-the-back tips and junior libero Carli Weiler’s quick feet to the mix, and MSU could be unstoppable.

If that’s not enough to have the Big Ten teams shaking in their knee pads, the Spartans have Mathews, the conference’s top ranking freshman in blocks and third overall. Against U-M, she put down 12 blocks, the most in a three-set match in program history.

So where was this charismatic team all season? The one that proved to be a real contender in the Big Ten, but did it just a little too late? It seems like everyone was struggling just a little to find their groove.

Now that they’ve found it, next season will be a real dog fight.

Michelle Martinelli is a State News sports reporter. She can be reached at mart1114@msu.edu.

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