EAST LANSING, Mich. — With one of the team’s largest crowds of the year behind it, the Michigan State volleyball team (20-9, 9-8 Big Ten) stunned No. 7 Illinois (24-4, 13-4 Big Ten), 3-1 inside Jenison Field House on Friday night. The senior class of Kyndra Abron, Natalie Emro, Jenilee Rathje, Carli Weiler and Becca Zlabis led the Spartans over the Fighting Illini.
“This is certainly a big win for the seniors tonight,” said head coach Cathy George. “To have each of our seniors with double-digit marks truly speaks highly to the leadership each one of them provide us. To have three of them with 10 or more kills shows that this team was moving the ball pin-to-pin, effectively working our offense. It’s great to celebrate now, but we need to make sure that we are ready tomorrow for a tough Northwestern team.”
The win marked the second time the Spartans have upset the No. 7 team in the nation under head coach Cathy George (Nov. 2, 2007 at Wisconsin, 3-1).
The Green and White had four individuals record double-digit kill marks, and five with six or more. Also, five Spartans chipped in 10 or more digs for the defense, while the ball was evenly distributed by Emro and sophomore Kelsay Kuipers with 24 assists, each. Three tallied double-doubles against the Fighting Illini, the most Spartans with double-doubles since Sept. 11, 2010, when MSU had four individuals post double-doubles against Eastern Michigan.
MSU took the opening set, 25-14, behind a set-high five kills from Zlabis. After falling behind 2-1 in the early portion of the set, the Spartans took three of four for the first lead of the match. The lead would bounce back and forth between the two teams with a total of three lead changes and four ties. Following five straight to the Green and White, capped off by a hitting error by Illinois, the Fighting Illini called their first timeout of the night at 10-7. MSU would push its lead to 11 at 24-13 before Zlabis capped off the set with a kill. The Spartans hit a stunning .387 in the opening set, while Illinois hit .094.
In a highly contested second set, Illinois tied the match at 1-1 after a narrow 25-23 win. MSU opened the second with a 2-1 lead, but the two teams began to trade points, until the Green and White held its largest lead of the set of two at 6-4. The Fighting Illini took six of eight for a two point lead at 10-8. UI’s lead grew to three at 16-13, forcing a Spartan timeout, before the Green and White were back within one at 21-20, forcing an Illini timeout to be called. The set wrapped up following a kill from Michelle Bartsch. Both Rathje and Abron tallied five kills in the set.
The Spartans managed to pull out a back-and-forth third set by a score of 25-21. The Green and White jumped out early, 7-4, before facing adversity in the middle of the frame. With 14 ties and three lead changes, MSU allowed the Fighting Illini to gain its first lead of the set at 16-15. Michigan State clawed back into the set and ended it following back-to-back kills from Zlabis.
Looking to capture the pivotal set and avoid a five-set contest, the Green and White took set four, 25-22. MSU took the first four points of the set to force an early Illinois timeout, 4-0. The Fighting Illini remained strong, getting within two of the Spartans, 8-6, but Michigan State caused the final Illinois timeout to be called at 16-9. The Green and White saw a kill from Rathje at 20-12 to gain its largest lead of the set. The Spartans closed out the wire-to-wire with after Rathje slammed the ball home from Emro.
Michigan State saw even distribution from pin-to-pin with Rathje netting a team-best 16 kills, Zlabis tallying a season-high 15, Abron with 13 kills and sophomore Alexis Mathews 11 kills. Freshman Kori Moster was all over the back court for the Spartans, reeling in a match-high 25 digs. Zlabis was close in the dig column with 16, giving her, her first double-double of the season and 17th in her career. Rathje and Kelsay also tallied double-doubles with 12 and 11 digs, respectively. Weiler was the fourth Spartan to amass double-digit digs with her 10. At the net, Mathews was the top individual with six, while Rathje joined with five, tying her career-high with two solo blocks.
MSU outhit the Illini throughout the match, .240 to .165. For the second consecutive match, the Green and White out blocked the opponent 13-9.