Michigan State’s young volleyball team - this year's team features six true freshman - has won its last 12 nonconference matches, winning tournaments in North Carolina, Connecticut and at home. But the real tests start this weekend, and the Spartans know it.
Big Ten play kicks off Friday night in Iowa City, where the Spartans will face a hungry Iowa team that has won six straight matches. And after that they have a date with mighty defending National Champion Nebraska, Sunday afternoon in Lincoln.
“This is known to be one of the best conferences in the nation,” freshman setter Elena Shklyar said. “There are no nights where you can take a night off, so I’m really excited to finally get the Big Ten season going.”
Last year’s team was senior-laden, with Autumn Bailey and Alyssa Garvelink earning second-team AVCA All-American honors. The goals were ambitious, the dreams were big. When the season ended with a disappointing sweep at the hands of Penn State in the Elite Eight, everyone knew that era of Spartan volleyball was over.
This new group of women in green and white are not shrinking from the task at hand. Expectations are not as high as last year. There are no Final Four delusions. But the measure of a program is not what happens when the team is loaded with All-America caliber seniors.
“I think a lot of people just figure we’re not gonna be able to do much because we are young, and that’s to be determined,” Coach Cathy George said. “We have to play together and answer the challenges, so the way we have to go about is one step at a time.”
Of the nine players who appeared in all four sets of Saturday night’s match against Western Michigan, only one, junior defensive specialist Samantha McLean, is an upperclassman. Sophomore libero Jamye Cox is the only player that appeared in every set last season that is still on the team. This is the kind of youth that the Big Ten, the best volleyball conference in the nation, is known to expose.
The preseason was successful. An opening night loss to Tennessee was corrected, adversity was handled and the team gained confidence.
“Now it’s full speed ahead,” sophomore outside hitter Alyssa Chronowski said. “We found a system that we think is gonna be really successful, and we’re just gonna go all out.”
The team is confident. Young teams are sometimes simply too young to be scared. Put Jamye Cox aside, and none of these players have seen what it’s like to compete against the likes of Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin.
“We know that people are viewing us as the underdogs, but we’ve been working our butts off in practice,” Cox said. “We’re prepared, we’re ready.”
The season will not be defined by this weekend, of course. A victory over Iowa and a credible performance against Nebraska would not make the season a success. In that vein, two blowout losses would not necessarily make the season a failure.
But make no mistake, this weekend does matter. It will test the the freshman middle duo of Naya Gros and Rebecka Poljan against the fight of Iowa and the power of Nebraska. It will test the new, faster Spartan tempo with a freshman setter and sophomore outside hitters against the defending champions.
Come Sunday night, we’ll start to know if this team’s quiet confidence is reflective of a team ready to defy expectations, or the hot air of a young team that doesn’t know better.