EAST LANSING, Mich. — Friday night kicked off a successful weekend for Michigan State volleyball. Jenison Field House became a melting pot of teams for the 2018 Auto-Owners Insurance Spartan Invitational. The Spartans rolled through the tournament, winning all three of their games, finishing the weekend off with a win against in-state rival Western Michigan.
“This is our first time at home,” Spartan hitter Rebecka Poljan said. “A lot of us are freshmen and so we’ve never been here and we’ve never seen the atmosphere in full effect. Especially being (a freshman), it felt great. We use that energy and those nerves from the first weekend at home, the home opener and it’s just like it was such a beautiful thing how it came together.”
The Spartans are one of four teams that participated this weekend, the other three being Western Michigan, Albany and UAB. The Spartans played game two Friday against the Great Danes and managed to come away with a win: 25-19, 25-21, 25-16.
“I think for the first one at home the emotions were bubbling over for sure in the locker room,” Alyssa Chronowski said. “We just wanted to harness those and just get a lot of positive energy going against the opponent and I think we delivered.”
Feeding off the energy provided to them by their beloved fans, the Spartans came out strong in the first set. Albany’s team struggled with errors on its side of the net. Michigan State was up 10-3, when the Great Danes began to fight back. Although Albany’s offense put up a good fight, it wasn’t enough to stop the Spartans. Alyssa Chronowski pushed Michigan State to a concrete lead with her aggressive swing. The Great Danes made too many errors to earn a win, giving the Spartans the final lead, 25-19.
“Alyssa’s a tremendous athlete and she’s growing everyday,” MSU coach Cathy George said. “Every day she’s learning how to be a better and better player. We give her more and more responsibility, and she just continues to thrive. So I’m looking forward to her continued growth.”
The second set was an uphill battle for both teams. The Great Danes were fueled up by their loss. The Spartans struggled offensively to find their groove, while Albany’s offense was successful. Rebecka Poljan had three kills for the Spartans. Hits like hers gave Michigan State the momentum it needed to finish out the set. After an electric defensive effort from Spartan Jamye Cox, the set came to match point. The Spartans sealed the second set with an ace from Cox, 25-21.
The third set was another challenge for Albany. The Great Danes kept up with the Spartans’ intensity and kept them on their toes. Michigan State widened the gap at 11-4, thanks to Albany’s mistakes. Although the Spartans had plenty of opportunities to seal the deal, they failed to go on a run to finish the match. The Great Danes believed they had a chance to sneak up, but the Spartans came back, winning the match with a 25-16 third set victory.
“We focus on our side of the court,” Poljan said. “That’s the best thing we can do. If we start focusing on the other side that’s when it gets messy on ours. Just doing what we do best, running our system, our setters did a phenomenal job feeding our hitters when we were hot.”
The Jenison flooded, again, with Spartan fans on Saturday for day two of the Invitational. The Spartans took on UAB at 11 a.m. and won in three quick sets: 25-7, 25-16, 27-25. Michigan State out-blocked UAB with a season high of 14, while UAB collected only five blocks.
Michigan State played its third and last game against in-state rival Western Michigan Saturday night. WMU had not played the Spartans in volleyball since the 2002 season, when Spartan head coach Cathy George was the head coach of the Broncos. The Spartans were able to stay on top after conquering the Broncos in four sets, winning 25-19, 25-22, 14-25, 25-20.
“It was good that Western tested us in ways and showed us different things,” George said. “That’s really important for us as we continue to grow. Each team this weekend does some things that are similar to teams in the Big Ten. So it’s really good for us to experience it. And for us to understand what we did and didn’t do well with what we’re trying to do.”
The highly-anticipated match heated up right off the bat. Hitting errors and defensive holes caused the lack of a solid lead from both teams. Spartans Alyssa Chronowski and Rebecka Poljan fire up the offense with three kills each in the first set alone. The Broncos were not able to keep up with the Michigan State aggression.
MSU pulled away with a 21-15 lead, looking confident. The in-state rival did not give up that easy, making a comeback to 24-19. Due to their own errors and Michigan State’s unbreakable defense, the Broncos fell short 25-19. Spartan hitter Meredith Norris led the offense with five kills in the first set.
The Broncos came out in the second set with some electric and scrappy defense, keeping them even with the Spartans. MSU struggled on its side of the net with service errors and dropped balls. Western Michigan gained momentum with kill after kill, eventually making the score 16-11. The Spartans struggled to find their groove.
“We weren’t decisive enough in some of the things that they were doing,” said George. “They were serving different serves and we were just two people on a ball. We were just needing to be a little bit more clear with whose responsibilities were what.”
Bronco middle hitter Janell Williams gave the Spartan defense a run for their money. Despite the the solid lead, Western Michigan failed to finish. The Spartans’ determination carried them to a 21-21 tie. Spartan middle Naya Gros put her foot down and created a much needed energetic vibe while collecting four kills and four blocks. Chronowski was ready and committed, and put the ball down with a backrow attack to seal the set at 25-22.
“We do get into the lulls at times that normally starts with serve receive,” Chronowski said. “Serve receive is first contact and it kind of trickles into the other contacts and makes the setter work and puts us in bad situations for hitting. We needed to control the serve receive game first.”
Although the Spartans had two sets under their belt, they couldn’t create the intensity needed to start off strong in the third set. Western Michigan’s front line was not ready to quit, and MSU failed to keep the ball in play. Struggling too much with consistency on their side of the net, the Spartans trailed 11-5. Bronco hitter Rachel Bontrager was relentless in her swing from outside.
Not only were the Broncos fearless in their offense, but also the Spartans were drowning in their own mistakes. Spartans hitters were averaging at .138 in the third set, while the Broncos were hitting at .375. Falling incredibly short this set, the Spartans failed to end the match in three sets, losing the third set 25-14. This loss took a toll on the Spartans, breaking their 23 set winning streak.
“Cathy always says ‘maturity’s not shown by how you play but it’s how you handle your emotions’ and I thought that despite that lull in the third game, I love the way we fought back in the fourth,” Chronowski said.
The fourth set was full of ups and downs from both sides of the net. Neither the Broncos nor the Spartans were ready to lose. Michigan State fell short in the beginning of the set with a lack of energy, putting the Broncos in the lead at 6-3.
The Spartans picked themselves up after a timeout called by George. Using its passion as a weapon, MSU kicked up the heat, forcing mistakes out of WMU. After a kill from Gros and Poljan, the Spartans’ intensity grew and put them in the lead at 14-11.
“The experience so far has been amazing,” said Gros. “I can say as a freshman coming in i knew a lot of pressure to perform on the court but my team supported me throughout every single game and gave me encouragement the crowd was amazing. I live playing in atmospheres like this.”
George called a timeout at 21-18, to make sure her Spartans were ready to finish the match. MSU climbed their way to 24-20, and Spartan Meredith Norris ended the match with an ace, giving the Spartans the win at 25-20. Even though the Spartans’ 23 set winning streak was broken, their game winning streak stays alive at 12 consecutive wins.
“As a team we can improve on serve receive and communication and individually I wanna keep getting up in transition and working hard,” Gros said. “I look towards my team. I give all the credit to them.”
Chronowski received the Most Valuable Player award in the Invitational after the Spartan win. The Spartans head to Iowa on Friday to take on the Hawkeyes in a 7 p.m. game. Then MSU heads to Lincoln that Sunday for a challenging match against No. 4 University of Nebraska. But for now, Michigan State will use the off time to recuperate and excel.
“I think we know that the Big Ten is its own animal so you have five teams in the top seven in the country, we know that we have our work cut out for us so we’re not gonna fool ourselves and know that we have to work really hard,” George said.