The last time the MSU women’s volleyball team played No. 7 Illinois, the Spartans took the Fighting Illini — then ranked No. 1 overall — to the brink on its home court, before eventually falling in five sets, 3-2.
A little more than a month later, the Spartans (19-9 overall, 8-8 Big Ten) will get another shot when they host the Fighting Illini at Jenison Field House on Friday night. They will follow that game up by taking on the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday evening.
In addition to the obvious ramifications within the Big Ten standings, the 19-win Spartans also have a chance to do something they and head coach Cathy George haven’t done since 2007.
“20 wins is very key, especially since it helps us with seeding in the tournament,” senior outside hitter Jenilee Rathje said. “But also, I think it’s a great milestone. Knowing that it’s the first time since 2007 we could do that is encouraging because it builds on some of the similarities we’ve had to that team.”
That 2007 squad took its regular season success into the NCAA Tournament, making it to the Sweet Sixteen before being bounced by No. 2 seed Nebraska. However, the Spartans will need a strong showing this weekend to improve their standings.
Since beginning Big Ten play, MSU has split each of its weekend games. Also, when the Spartans play a conference opponent they have already lost to, they have lost in the second meeting. On the flip side, they have done the same to teams they have already beaten, sweeping Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.
“It’s a two-game weekend. It’s not (just) one match,” George said. “We’ve gotta make sure we stick with it all the way through, and I think we showed a lot of maturity in that with the Wisconsin game.”
Although the Spartans have been successful behind Rathje and senior outside hitter Kyndra Abron, they have also gotten a lot of help on the defensive end from sophomore middle blocker Alexis Mathews.
Mathews had a career night against Wisconsin last weekend, racking up 16 kills and giving a dominating performance at the net, tallying a season-high nine blocks. She’ll have to be on top of her game if the Spartans want to stop Illinois’ strong offense.
“I just want to stay consistent,” Mathews said. “We (middle blockers) have been working on attacking and communicating with the setters, so as long as we stay involved in the offense, we’ll be good.”
After nearly stealing a victory in Champaign, Ill., the Spartans hope the home crowd advantage will give them the push they need to take down the Fighting Illini. The 7 p.m. game will be the first time MSU has played at Jenison since Oct. 29, and the homecoming couldn’t come soon enough.
As the regular season begins to wrap up, three of the Spartans’ final four games are at home with only one road trip to Ann Arbor. If MSU takes advantage of their schedule and plays well in those games, the Spartans likely will be in good shape come tournament selection time.
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