Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Michigan State volleyball faces uphill battle as season becomes reality

January 5, 2021
<p>Graduate setter Audrey Alford (2) listens to Head Coach Cathy George during their game against Wisconsin on Oct. 25, 2019, at Jenison Fieldhouse. The Spartans fell to the Badgers, 0-3.</p>

Graduate setter Audrey Alford (2) listens to Head Coach Cathy George during their game against Wisconsin on Oct. 25, 2019, at Jenison Fieldhouse. The Spartans fell to the Badgers, 0-3.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

It was a rush of excitement and an outburst of relief when the black and white lettering arrived in front of Cathy George and the Michigan State volleyball program.

Finally, something that was set in stone in an offseason riddled by uncertainty.

Other teams played, the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Sun Belt and Atlantic Coast Conference had all been doing so during the fall.

“The advantage (for those conferences) is that they’ll be more rested because they will be able to split it between two semesters and get a break in between,” George said. “So they’ll have a chance to sit back and watch what everybody else is doing and watch us play now."

"But in the end, we are really just thrilled that we're playing, the team was so hyped when they heard the schedule (was released) and that we were getting going because of all this practice, we have something that we are working for," she said.

MSU volleyball thought, George told The State News, that the program would have a season in the Spring after they heard the NCAA had decided to host the National Championship in April.

But then when the Spartans found out they would be facing Minnesota, who is expected to be among the top teams in the Big Ten, on Jan. 23 on the road, everything came into focus.

It’ll be an uphill battle for the women of MSU volleyball, but this is what they’ve worked for their entire lives.

It was something, a season they weren't too sure was likely. But still, it was the thing they hadn't had any concrete evidence telling the team it would happen.

“This is what they’ve been doing since they were little kids," George said. "They wanted to be collegiate volleyball players, and they want to play in matches and they want to play in the NCAA tournament — that's all part of their dreams, and so they want to make it a reality, and they are very excited that we have been given an opportunity to do that because we’ve been waiting a long time."

Even if it's without fans in the cavernous Jenison Fieldhouse, too.

“We love the crowds for sure, and the conference is the top conference in the country in terms of fan base (attendance) and it's always packed," George said. "Yeah, you’re going to lose that extra oomph for sure. I think you can see it with basketball feeds off of that. I think it's going to be something. You love playing in front of fans, so you’re going to miss that part of it, but you know what, we’ll have to create our own energy, we’ll have to do it and we’re going to have to just keep it within the lines, just build up each other."

It will be difficult, George acknowledged, having such little time to prepare for a 22-game schedule against possibly the top conference for Division I women’s volleyball, but she’s excited as the Spartans will have six seniors and are bringing four new faces into the fold this spring.

Who will lead the Spartans? It’s hard to predict, George said, but she knows the team's long offseason has provided plenty of training and prep as the experienced roster takes on the gauntlet of the Big Ten.

“I think, all in all, it's going to be hard to predict yet because we haven’t competed for so long,” George said, “(but) you just don’t really know. There’s been a lot of improvement now. We have quite a few seniors — six seniors. Three of them had graduated in December but chose to come back and do their grad work so they could have this semester and we welcomed in (five) new players.”

That depth will key a shortened season that, inevitably as others have been, will be forced to reckon with the ebb and flow of a pandemic. 

Adding to the struggles of a newly-minted schedule is the cutting of 16 teams from the NCAA Tournament in April.

The NCAA decided to limit the usually 64 teams qualifying to 48, with 32 automatic qualifiers and 16 at-large bids, which George said will cause even more discussion as teams are selected — or not — for postseason action.

“It will be really important in watching," George said. "The committee will have to watch matches on TV on our shared match kind of set up that we have (for viewing matches across the NCAA) to do a really good job and pick the tournament the right way."

But the Spartans will have to control what they can.

“I think we're learning to roll with punches a little bit more," George said. "This whole experience has been start-stop start-stop. It’s been very trying and difficult for all the athletes. I think … it's one in which we’re learning to kind of work through adversities."

Even George knows that the task ahead won’t be that easy.

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