In last Friday’s Big Ten home volleyball opener, the energy felt at Jenison Field House finally matched its new digs. And the play wasn’t too shabby either.
The Spartans (13-3 overall, 2-2 Big Ten), ultimately lost to then-No. 7 Nebraska in a 3-2 heartbreaker that saw MSU take the Cornhuskers to the very brink before falling in the final set, 16-14.
However, the final score isn’t the key. The most important thing to take away from the match was the way the team conducted itself. The Spartans held tough with a nationally ranked opponent and almost came out with the upset.
Senior outside hitters Jenilee Rathje and Kyndra Abron led the charge for the Spartans, putting on the kind of performance that would give the Monstars from “Space Jam” a run for their money. In a losing effort, Abron recorded 20 kills while Rathje notched a career-high 27 kills.
Head coach Cathy George said she was impressed with the team’s performance, especially her two seniors. But the team needed to spread the ball around more to avoid becoming too predictable, something that can factor in hugely when the Spartans are playing each conference team twice.
The fact is, the Big Ten is the most competitive conference for volleyball. Currently, seven out of the 12 Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 25 AVCA coaches poll, including No. 1 Illinois, whom the Spartans face on the road next weekend.
So how do the Spartans stack up with their conference opponents? MSU is sitting atop the Big Ten and the nation in hitting percentage, with an impressive .326 mark. In the conference, MSU is tied for first in blocks per set with 2.79, ranked third in kills per set with 14.21 and fourth in assists per set with 13.19.
“It’s just about an inch that separates teams in the Big Ten,” George said.
George knows this better than anyone. In 2009, she coached a team that breezed through nonconference play, racing out to a 12-0 start. But when Big Ten play began, the Spartans lost 15 of their final 20 games, eventually losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But don’t expect this group of Spartans to limp through the rest of the season.
If the Nebraska match was any indication the Spartans are ready to fight until the end, their play the next night, when they swept Iowa 3-0, should be the clincher.
It would be easy for the Spartans to become intimidated by their upcoming competition. After all, when three-time defending national champion Penn State is currently behind three other teams in the conference standings, no one could blame the Spartans for getting starstruck.
But George has done a remarkable job keeping her players grounded. When asked about playing the Cornhuskers, George gave no indication that the upcoming game was different from any other the Spartans have played all season. And if George and her players are able to maintain that kind of mentality throughout the rest of the season, they could be the ones doing the intimidating.
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