The MSU volleyball team will face its biggest test of the season when it travels to Champaign, Ill., on Saturday to take on the No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini, but the Spartans are not looking past Friday when they will face the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston, Ill.
“I think we know we have to come into Illinois playing our best game, but I think we really have to focus on playing one game at a time,” freshman libero Kori Moster said. “Northwestern’s first, and we have to get a win there before we can even think about Illinois.”
The Spartans (14-4 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) will hope to rebound after dropping three straight sets to No. 14 Minnesota last weekend. In that match, the Golden Gophers forced the Spartans to work for every point and, in the end, proved to be too much to handle. However, two wins on the road would make a statement and help to put a tough loss in the past.
Against Northwestern, the Spartans can expect to see some fire coming from the Wildcats, who are coming off their first Big Ten victory of the season. Although Northwestern is 10-7 overall and 1-5 in the conference, it’s record is deceiving. The Wildcats nearly toppled No. 8 Penn State on the road last week and will be looking to start off their three game home stand on the right foot with a win against MSU.
MSU head coach Cathy George noted that the Wildcats are a young team, but they also recruit players with a lot of playing experience in high school — so the Spartans can’t be reliant on Northwestern making too many mistakes.
When the Spartans take on Illinois, they’ll be tackling the nation’s best team in what is also one of the nation’s toughest venues. Illinois has only lost five matches at home in the past four years and thousands of fans consistently turn out at Huff Hall for each game. The Fighting Illini will also be riding the momentum of a 3-1 set victory against No. 20 Michigan on Wednesday night.
Last year the Spartans were swept in Huff Hall by the Fighting Illini, dropping the matches by scores of 3-0 and 3-2. However, senior outside hitter Becca Zlabis has played some of her best volleyball against Illinois and could prove to the key to a Spartan victory. Zlabis, who is from Wheaton, Ill., said she is familiar with a number of girls on the Illinois squad, which helped fuel her performance.
“It was an ‘(I’m not) going to let them win’ attitude,” she said.
George said the Spartans will have to come out aggressively if they want to hand Illinois its first loss of the season. Senior outside hitters Jenilee Rathje and Kyndra Abron and sophomore middle blocker Alexis Mathews have all been aggressive this season, and if they keep it up against Illinois, the Spartans will be in good position for an upset.
“You know when you’re going on the road you really need to pick it up another notch, and you really need to pay attention to the details,” George said. “You’re never going to be given anything on the road. You’re going to have to go and take it.”
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