After three months of the daily grind of the regular season, the MSU volleyball team will open the postseason at 5:30 p.m. today in Austin, Texas, when it faces Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
If the Spartans are able to knock off the Wildcats, they could be looking at less than 24 hours to prepare for the No. 1 team in the tournament if Texas is able to stave off Texas State.
But head coach Cathy George was quick to note her team isn’t paying attention to the Longhorns looming past the First Round.
“This is no different than any other Big Ten weekend,” she said. “We’re playing great teams both nights with a back-to-back turnaround, and we’re pretty used to that process by now. We know we have to get through the first one to get to the second, and eventually, (to) the prize.”
The last time the Spartans won a tournament match was in 2007, when they swept Kentucky and Dayton to make their way to the Sweet Sixteen, eventually losing 3-2 to No. 2 seeded Nebraska. In the years since, George has not seen a team win more than 17 games — until now.
At 21-11 (10-10 Big Ten), the 2011 Spartans have won more regular season games than any MSU volleyball team since 1998, and have improved in each game this season. Michigan State has rattled off some quality wins, such as then-No. 21 Michigan and more recently over No. 7 Illinois.
Although their record might not show it, the Spartans might be peaking at just the right time. They have played three ranked opponents in their final four games of the season, fighting till the end and splitting the stretch, 2-2.
That spell also saw MSU earn its first weekend sweep since before the start of conference play.
George said playing the type of competition that is offered in the Big Ten gives her team an advantage going into its first game against the Wildcats.
Despite that, sophomore middle blocker Alexis Mathews still said getting off to a hot start will be crucial against Arizona.
“We need to make sure we’re firing on all cylinders early,” Mathews said. “Hitting the ball, distributing well, and (we need to) exploit our mismatches.”
Mismatches will be difficult to come by, as George noted the two teams match up in just about every statistical category.
She also said Arizona distributes the ball well offensively, boasting three attackers with 300-plus kills. Meanwhile, the Spartans mostly have relied on the offensive attack of senior outside hitters Jenilee Rathje and Kyndra Abron, who have tallied 487 and 391 kills, respectively.
But when it comes down to it, the tournament means it’s crunch time for the Spartans. With its season on the line, MSU is in a win or go home situation from here on out.
For Abron, the uncertainty of what can happen in the tournament adds some extra motivation to an already important match.
“I think it’s exciting to know that any moment could be your last,” she said. “You don’t want your last game to be a bad one, so everyone’s definitely going to play their best and stay focused and stay in it, because if they don’t, we’re done.”
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