Neither team is even ranked. But this isn’t a match for style points.
This is Michigan State versus Michigan.
“It’s going to be very, very interesting come Friday,” State’s outside hitter Lauren Wicinski said. “It’s going to be a full-out brawl, basically. It’s going to be fun.”
It’s even more fun that the two schools that sit just 64 miles apart are matched up in the NCAA volleyball tournament’s round of 16 in, of all places, Berkeley, Calif.
The Spartans, however, have been California dreamin’ since the middle of last week, opening play at UCLA by getting past San Diego in five sets. Then Saturday they knocked off the host team, which just happened to be the defending national champion, in four sets.
No sense going home at that point.
Meanwhile, Michigan was in Louisville, rallying to get past Tennessee in five and then knocking off the host team in four on the same KFC Yum! Center floor on which both the Wolverines and Spartans hope to play on December 13 in the national semifinals.
But wait, there’s more between these two programs. They have a great deal of respect for each other—their rosters include former club teammates, friends, and coaches who have competed against each other for a long time.
This season on October 17, State won at Michigan in three.
Then on November 21, Michigan won at State in three.
They both finished 11-9 in Big Ten play.
State is 25-9, Michigan is 25-11 and both beat Nebraska and Minnesota last month.
“We’re two teams that are pretty even in terms of physicality and the way we play,” eight-year Michigan State coach Cathy George said. “Both teams serve tough and rely a lot on our ball control and defense. We both do the same things well and have balanced offenses. That’s what’s going to make it an interesting match.”
And consider this: Michigan is 7-0 this season in matches on a neutral court, while State is 5-0.
“No matter who we would play right now it would be exciting to play in the sweet 16,” State setter Kristen Kelsay said. “But the fact that it’s Michigan is not a coincidence. I don’t know why, I just think it was mean to be. It’s interesting that we beat Michigan at Michigan in front of 4,000 people and they beat us at home in front of 5,000 people.
“And now here are two Michigan teams that are going to play in California in front of probably two to three hundred people. It’s going to take away not the rivalry, but the fans and how close we are in state to each other and it’s going to come down to who plays better volleyball.”
Actually for accuracy’s sake, there were 1,447 in attendance when they played in Ann Arbor, but 5,059 for the match in Lansing. And Friday there might be more than a few hundred, since the match right after the Michigan game pits second-ranked Stanford, located just 38 miles from Cal, against 18th-ranked Iowa State. The two winners play Saturday for a berth in the 2012 NCAA Women’s Division I Volleyball Championships.
That may be uncharted territory for State, which got to the round of 16 in 2007 before losing in five to Nebraska, but George took Texas-Arlington to the Final Four in 1989, so she knows what getting this far means.
“It’s six matches and you’re taking it one step at a time,” George said. “You know from playing in the Big Ten that you’re seeing that same type of competition that you’re going to see in the tournament. You’re seeing that same level, different styles. We’ve seen it all and that prepares you for this journey here.”
After beating UCLA, celebrating, and winding down, the Spartans got back to being students. The weather was lousy in L.A. this week and there were tests to take and studying to be done before the bus ride Wednesday to Berkeley. They got in some practices and prepared for the task at hand.
In the meantime there were some honors.
Wicinski, a 6-1 junior from Geneva, Ill., who transferred last year from Northern Illinois and was already named to the All-Big Ten team, was named to the AVCA All-Mideast Region team. She leads the Spartans in points (5.34), kills (4.42) and aces (.64) per set.
Sophomore libero Kori Moster, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year from Cincinnati who was spectacular in the first two rounds at UCLA, received All-Region honorable mention.
Earlier, setter Halle Peterson, from Rockford, Mich., was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team and Kelsay, a junior from Wheaton, Ill., was honored by the league for her sportsmanship.
Of course, there were plenty of other players honored by the Big Ten, which still has six of its seven teams remaining in this tournament, including Michigan’s Jennifer Cross. The Canadian junior middle blocker was also named to the All-Region team. Junior teammate outside Lexi Erwin, from Spring, Texas, received honorable mention.
Before their first meeting, Michigan State was coming off three consecutive league losses that included falling to two teams that didn’t make the NCAA tournament, Northwestern and Illinois. But then it beat Michigan, and turned right back around to lose two of their next three matches.
Finally they put a winning streak together, winning six in a row before ending the regular season on a sour note, with that loss to Michigan and then another sweep at top-ranked Penn State.
They entered NCAA play on a six-set losing streak.
“In the beginning of the year we talked about dividing our season into three sections. You’ve got your preseason, your Big Ten season and your NCAA season,” Kelsay said. “In each part you have your goals. But really, everything you work for is in that last third, the NCAA Tournament.
“And we talked about not letting those last two losses define everything we had worked for this season.”
No, instead the two victories at UCLA have re-defined this season. Get ready for the Great Lakes State, West.
“This has been an amazing journey,” Wicniski said. “We’ve been doing well and we want to continue, so it’s really great right now.”