The Michigan State volleyball team graduated four All-Americans from the 2017 team that reached the Elite Eight. Only three of the 15 Spartan players are upperclassmen, so sophomores have been forced to step into leadership roles they usually would not be asked to fill.
“We kind of had to grow up a lot coming into the summer, knowing that we had to teach the freshmen coming in,” sophomore libero Jayme Cox said. “We have three upperclassmen, that’s not many and we can’t just put it all on them. So, our sophomore class has really stepped up and tried to help the upperclassmen ... I don’t think any of us feel like underclassmen.”
The Spartans opened their season with a weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee where they went 2-1 in the Tennessee Classic, initially falling to the University of Tennessee, before picking up victories over Chattanooga and Belmont University.
“I think the Tennessee weekend was definitely a learning experience,” sophomore outside hitter Meredith Norris said. “You could tell in the first game that we were all a little nervous considering none of us had played a full match except for Jayme Cox, but once we got those jitters out, it was just a learning experience from then on. I think every single person got better as the weekend went on, and we finished with our best volleyball.”
The Spartans would then go on to sweep the Carolina Classic a week later, besting the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, UNC Greensboro, and the University of North Carolina.
Head coach Cathy George, who’s in her 14th season at MSU, mentioned that preventing large scoring runs from opposing teams is an emphasis for any young team, particularly this one.
“I felt that there were certain situations that we can correct, that we need to look at to slow that down,” George said. “But I thought that we had a lot of six-point runs as well, it was a weekend of runs for a lot of teams. The first weekend you’ll see that more than others. If we can start to work to control some of that, yes. I think we’re learning about who we are as a team. This group has never played together.”
With a team this young, every experience is a new one, including the first big road trips of the season, which helped the team bond off the court as well.
“I think you learn more about each other. We spend a lot of time together obviously, but we don’t all live together,” Cox said. “You kind of learn that not only do you have their backs on the court but you have their backs off the court. We’re all more similar than we think, and when we step on the court, there’s a sense of comfort because we know we’re all together since we supported each other off the court.”
With expectations lower for this season, the focus is on development and gaining consistency.
“They’re a very hungry group that is looking to improve all the time, and because of that, I would anticipate that the team you’ll see at the end of the season will be a lot different from the team you see at the beginning of the season,” George said. “That’s really what we’re tracking on.”
Cox said the team doesn’t want to peak too early.
“I think we not only want to be the best we can be when we hit tournament time or Big Ten season, but we just want to continue to grow throughout the whole season,” Cox said. “We don’t want to hit our peaking point when we’re in the second weekend of Big Tens. I think last year we were pretty consistent, we knew we were pretty good. I think this year we kind of know that where we start isn’t where we’re gonna finish, so our goal is just to keep rising and rising, not to up-down, up-down.”
Cox, who is the only member of this year’s team to appear in every set last season, believes taking on an expanded leadership role will allow her to flourish.
“You worry, like ‘Oh my God, am I doing the right thing?’ But you kind of just play,” she said. “I think you’re so focused on, ‘What can I do to make my team better? What can I do to make my teammates feel that sense of calm?’ I think it’s more relaxing than it is pressure because you’re so focused on how to make other people better than yourself.”
Norris was invited to attend camp with USA Volleyball this summer, and she believes that experience will be invaluable moving forward.
“USA runs a lot faster tempo than most high school and college teams do,” she said. “We are really adapting to that and starting that new faster tempo so it was really nice to go there and learn it before coming here.”
George was very gracious in her praise of the young players, saying they were bursting with talent.
“I love as a coach having a new team every year, and finding out how they find their way to winning,” she said.” "And it might look different. It might be blocking, it might be attacking, it might be serving. What is it about this team is gonna make it unique? We’re seeing some really good things after this weekend, but is that gonna be our M.O. this season and can we continue to capitalize on some of our strengths?”