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Clutch play has MSU volleyball off to hot start

September 6, 2011
Photo by Mo Hnatiuk | The State News

In 1975, the last time the MSU volleyball team (6-0) opened a season winning six games without losing a set, “Jaws” was the top-grossing movie, Stevie Wonder won a Grammy for Album of the Year and Jenison Field House was still two years away from the Magic Johnson era.

Now, led by senior captains Jenilee Rathje and Carli Weiler, and playing in a newly renovated Jenison Field House, the Spartans have done what hasn’t been done in more than 30 years. In two weekend tournaments, the Spartans have toppled the opposition in 18 consecutive sets, including an impressive come-from-behind victory against Toledo in last weekend’s Spartan Showcase. Rathje was named MVP in both tournaments, and sophomore Alexis Mathews is atop the Big Ten conference with 32 blocks.

Earlier in the season, head coach Cathy George said she was working with a “special team,” and so far, this has been a pretty special season.

The team is leading the Big Ten in hitting percentage, at .336, and blocks per set with 3.06. The team flirted with the record books in the Spartan Showcase, posting a .557 hitting percentage against St. John’s — good enough for the second best in school-history.

MSU also has seen some national recognition, as more top-25 votes trickle in each week.

However, George hasn’t let the Spartans’ success go to their heads. She was quick to note that the team plays in one of the toughest conferences in college volleyball, and doing well in non-conference play doesn’t always translate to success in the Big Ten.

“Sure it’s great to say that you’ve won games,” George said. “But we’re in a brutal conference, and we know that we need to maintain a level of play consistently throughout a match.”

Maintaining consistency is something the Spartans have had some difficulty with this season, twice falling behind against Toledo and getting off to a sluggish start in several other matches. However, the Spartans were able to overcome that adversity, conveying one of the team’s biggest strengths this season — the drive to fight back.

“We’ve found ourselves behind, sometimes at the 20 (point) mark, and we’ve been able to battle back,” George said. “And it’s meant enough to us to fight and win that set and not wait until the next one.”

Already off to a strong start, the Spartans are playing at a much higher level than the squad that missed the postseason by one game last season.

“This team went through a great deal of training since last January,” George said. “We’ve been working on team leadership, team toughness and team chemistry.

“They’ve been very dedicated to this process, and I feel that’s bonded them together.”

Although the season is only two weeks old, it’s easy to be overzealous about MSU’s recent success. But if the team continues to dig deep and win tough matches, the Spartans are poised to stand toe-to-toe with perennial contenders Penn State and Illinois and newly added Nebraska, come Big Ten season.

And that could be a perfect inaugural year for the new-look Jenison Field House.

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