In what may prove to be one of the biggest wins of the season, the MSU volleyball team toppled No. 7 Illinois, 3-1, Friday at Jenison Field House.
Led by the play of its three senior outside hitters, Michigan State (20-9 overall, 9-8 Big Ten) shocked the Fighting Illini and earned its first 20-win season since 2007.
The victory is the second time that MSU has beaten the number seven team in the nation under head coach Cathy George, who is in her sixth year with the program. It also puts the Spartans at number five in the Big Ten standings, but most importantly, it all but locks up an NCAA tournament berth.
George praised the way her squad worked together and said their play was indicitive of a special team, a term she used earlier in the season to describe the Spartans.
“Everybody stepped up in their areas,” she said. “We all have different responsibilities and everyone was accountable to their role.”
MSU made a statement in the opening set after trading points with the Fighting Illini early on. Down 5-7, MSU rattled off five straight points to make the score 10-7, and never looked back, eventually taking the set by a score of 25-14. The Spartans were able to balance their offensive attack, spreading kills among several players. At the end of the set, four players finished with three kills or more, led by senior outside hitter Becca Zlabis.
“She stepped up huge and it was so great to see,” senior outside hitter Jenilee Rathje said about Zlabis. “As a senior, as a leader, it’s great to see her step up and be able to carry that through the rest of our season.”
Zlabis finished with 15 kills and 16 digs, giving her the first double-double of her season and 18th of her career. Zlabis’ performance is made even more impressive by the fact that she is recovering from a shoulder injury.
“We needed this win tonight and I think we all came prepared for it,” Zlabis said. “I wasn’t going to let my shoulder, any injuries affect my performance at all. I was just going to go out and play.”
However, Illinois fought back in set two, evening the match at one set apiece after stealing the set victory, 25-23. To their credit, the Spartans didn’t let up, keeping within three throughout. MSU’s balanced offensive attack from the first set seemed to disappear as Rathje and fellow senior outside hitter Kyndra Abron took over, claiming 10 of the Spartans’ 14 kills.
Set three was marred by controversial calls by the officials, leading to a home crowd chant which cannot be repeated.
But the Spartans were able to persevere, taking the set 25-21.
When it came to set four, it was all about the Green and White. The Spartans jumped out to an early 4-0 lead and rode it to the end, finishing off Illinois with a 25-22 set win. But as the Spartans neared 25 points, the Fighting Illini stayed with them, coming within one point. Nursing a 24-22 lead in set four, Rathje spiked the ball down and as it careened off an Illinois players outstretched arms, the Jenison crowd rose to its feet as the Spartans stormed the court.
Rathje finished with 16 kills on the night, followed closely by Zlabis, then Abron, who finished with 13. Sophomore middle blocker Alexis Mathews rounded out the double-digit killers with 11.
MSU will return to action Saturday night when it hosts the Northwestern Wildcats at 7 p.m.
Share and discuss “Volleyball upsets No. 7 Illinois” on social media.