In front of the largest Jenison Field House crowd the Spartans have seen all season, the MSU Volleyball team (12-3 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) fell to the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten), 3-2, in its Big Ten home opener.
Senior outside hitter Jenilee Rathje turned in another dominating performance, tallying a career-high 27 kills in the match while senior outside hitter Kyndra Abron added 20 kills. Sophomore setter Kristen Kelsay also had a prolific match, helping the Spartan effort with 31 assists.
Head coach Cathy George said although the offensive strategy was too reliant on the two girls, it was encouraging to see her senior leaders perform so well.
“They had double blocks on them, they had triple blocks on them, and they were still finding ways to score,” she said. “Those are two tremendous players and we have to work on a little bit more balance so they don’t have to take as many swings.”
The Spartans jumped out to an early lead in the first set, battled the Cornhuskers back and forth in the first set before eventually falling, 27-25. Despite strong performances from Rathje and Abron, The Spartans were overpowered by Nebraska outside hitter Morgan Broekhuis, who recorded nine kills in the first set.
Several times, monster kills by Abron or Rathje appeared to find the Huskers with their backs against the wall, but Nebraska was able to rally back and eventually take the set.
The second set was a much different story for MSU. Energized by the home crowd of 2,024 fans, the Spartans were able to rally back in set two, taking a commanding 10-6 lead before Nebraska head coach John Cook was forced to call a timeout.
However, Cook’s attempt to ice the Spartans did not seem to phase them, as MSU continued to roll, climbing to 15-6 before Nebraska took its second timeout of the set. The Spartans eventually took set two, 25-16, tying the match, 1-1.
MSU’s defense was able to contain Broekhuis, holding her to one kill in the set. Meanwhile, Abron recorded six kills in the set which may as well counted for two each with the amount of force she put the ball down with.
The Spartans continued to ride that momentum into set three, winning a shootout 25-21. Rathje took the lead, commanding the ball with authority and racking up eight kills in the set, while Abron chipped in with four.
However, the most effective factor of Rathje’s performance in set three was her leadership. Rathje’s teammates were able to feed off of her energy, and the Spartans were able to battle back from several deficits, wearing down the Huskers until they finally took the set. The deafening home crowd didn’t hurt MSU’s confidence either.
“From the very get go, we started off strong and the crowd was behind us the whole way,” Rathje said. “I know (Nebraska’s) used to that response at home, but that energy was working against them finally.”
Despite another seven kills from Rathje in the fourth set, MSU was unable to maintain momentum, allowing Nebraska to tie the match up, 2-2. The Spartans were able to hang with the Huskers early on, but Nebraska was able to pull away about midway through the set, winning by a 25-17 margin.
In set five, the Spartans played the Cornhuskers tough, but were unable to hang on, falling 16-14. MSU had some impressive moments, including a powerful kill by Rathje which extinguished a Nebraska match point and seemed to put some life into the Spartans as they took the next point as well, tying the set at 14.
But the Huskers persevered, scoring on two straight plays and dashing MSU’s hopes of an upset.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, the Spartans remain optimistic about their upcoming games.
“It’s so frustrating because we were so close to beating a team that’s really good,” Abron said. “But it’s scary how close we are to them. We just need to clean some stuff up, and we can already tell how much better we’ve gotten.”
The Spartans will return to Jenison Field House tomorrow night to meet the Iowa Hawkeyes.
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