After running the gauntlet of nonconference play, the MSU volleyball team is heading into Big Ten play with matches at Purdue on Friday and at Indiana on Saturday.
The Spartans (11-1) had a hot start to the season, winning 18 consecutive sets before falling to Bowling Green, 3-1, in the Best Western Falcon Plaza Invitational. However, MSU’s sole loss seems to have been a blip on the radar as the team has continued to steam roll its opponents, accumulating a 35-4 set record in nonconference play. But playing in the Big Ten is a different beast altogether, as head coach Cathy George and her players were quick to point out.
“There’s a huge increase in the physicality and the ability to play ball,” senior outside hitter Jenilee Rathje said. “From top to bottom, the Big Ten is very well-rounded and very competitive.”
The Spartans hope to improve on last year’s performance, in which the MSU finished 6-13 in the Big Ten, narrowly missing the NCAA tournament.
This year, the offensive play of senior outside hitters Rathje and Kyndra Abron, and sophomore middle blocker Alexis Mathews likely will determine how the Spartans rank in the Big Ten. Currently the three girls have accumulated 373 total kills. Rathje’s 156 kills finds her ranked fifth overall in the Big Ten, and Abron is ranked tenth in the conference for kills with 138.
The Spartans’ offensive precision also has been on target this season as they lead the nation in hitting percentage with .334.
But it’s Mathews’ defensive presence that could end up being the Spartans’ most effective weapon. Mathews is ranked second in the Big Ten and ninth in the nation in blocks per set with 1.53. Her performance has placed the Spartans atop the Big Ten in blocks per set with 3.11.
However, once conference play starts, everything becomes a little bit tougher. Rathje said the team has been spending more time on scouting this week than they have been this whole season.
“Scouting becomes so much more important,” George said. “When you’re in a tournament, there’s three games, and you have prepared for those teams, but not in the same way you prepare for the Big Ten teams.”
Freshman libero Kori Moster said she is looking forward to the challenges that come with playing in such a competitive conference.
“One of the big reasons I chose MSU is because it’s in the Big Ten,” Moster said. “I love the fact that every game will be a battle. No teams are going to be a walk-through, the competition is too high.”
For the rest of the Spartans, they will be squaring off against some familiar faces this weekend. George recalled last year when the Hoosiers’ Ashley Benson terrorized the Spartans. Benson has since graduated, and George said her absence allows her team to focus on other aspects of the game.
Having prior knowledge of their opponents makes scouting a little easier and helps the Spartans to prepare. However, familiarity goes both ways.
“Everybody knows everybody,” George said. “They’ve watched your players from year to year grow and add to their game, and we’ve watched theirs. You don’t get away with much in the Big Ten.”
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