Youthful Spartans Look to Serve Up Third-Straight Big Ten Title

Aug. 24, 1997

The Michigan State volleyball program went through various stages in its rise to national prominence over the last four years. Head Coach Chuck Erbe and his teams overcame the initial growing pains of rebuilding to being competitive to winning back-to-back Big Ten titles and becoming a Top 10 program.

As Michigan State begins the 1997 season, it enters a new stage - attempting to maintain its success.

"We are building a tradition in volleyball at Michigan State," says Erbe. "Now the challenge is to maintain our level of success without too many dips in the road.

"Our goal in this program is always to win the Big Ten Championship and put ourselves in a position to compete for the national title."

Erbe knows that if the Spartans are going to be on the road to becoming just the second team (Illinois/1986-88) in league history to accomplish the three-peat, he must find a winning combination for a team that features six returning letterwinners and seven newcomers.

"The big key for our season is what the mental approach of our returning players is going to be," says the fifth-year mentor. "We have one of the best freshman classes in the nation and they will be pushing the veterans for significant playing time. How everyone manages that situation will determine our team chemistry."

The graduation of co-captains Val Sterk and Dana Cooke, the two greatest players in MSU volleyball history, is another road block the Spartans must deal with.

Sterk, a two-time First-Team All-American led the nation in hitting percentage last season with a .449 average, while Cooke, an Honorable Mention All-American in 1996, was perhaps the greatest all-around player to ever grace the court.

"Val and Dana will always be remembered as the two players who brought this program into national prominence," Erbe said. "Not only did they bring Michigan State into the national limelight, but they left a legacy of excellence that will be followed by many after them but may never be duplicated.

"Can you ever replace players like that? - no, you don't ever replace them," he added. "Can others follow in their footsteps, absolutely. They serve as the model."

The leadership responsibilities were expected to shift to junior setter Julie Pavlus, who was voted team captain, but late in the summer she was forced to retire from competitive volleyball because of a chronic back injury.

The loss of Pavlus, MSU's only experienced setter, is yet another challenge for Erbe and the Spartans. Pavlus had an outstanding season in 1996, her first full year as the starter, playing in all 33 matches and finishing fourth in the Big Ten and 14th nationally with a 13.56 assists per game average.

"It goes without saying that Julie would have been an integral part of our team this season," Erbe said. "She is an extremely competitive player and her contributions to our program will be sorely missed."

With the loss of Pavlus, senior Corie Richard (Kentwood) and junior Jenna Wrobel (Naperville, Ill.) will take over as team co-captains, while Erbe will also look to Veronica Morales (Buenos Aires, Argentina) and Lindsey Clayton (Marysville) for additional leadership contributions.

"The four of them will need to provide the leadership that will stabilize this team and serve as the direction for where we are going this season," he said.

Richard played a unique role for the Spartans in 1996, replacing Pavlus in the right front position. A starter as a sophomore, she will look to regain her starting role in 1997.

Wrobel will be looked to for significant contributions this season. A two-time First-Team All-Big Ten selection, she can at times dominate a match. Last season, she was seventh in the Big Ten and 29th nationally with a 4.69 kills per game average. She begins the year needing just 20 kills to reach the 1,000 mark in her career.

"It's time for Jenna to step forward and exert leadership on the floor with steady performances," Erbe says.

Morales, who is a three-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection, will need to be more of a consistent threat offensively if the Spartans are to be successful this season.

In 1996, Morales averaged 3.78 kills per game, the lowest average of her career.

"I'm looking for Veronica to have a great senior year," Erbe said. "We need her to be a mainstay in our offense this season."

Clayton, who played behind Dana Cooke for three years, has the chance to claim one of the starting middle positions.

"She brings the most experience to the middle position," Erbe said. "The opportunity is there for her to step up and lay claim to one of those positions."

Sophomores Jenny Whitehead (Jenison) and Tammy Vonderheide (Stewardson, Ill.) round out the returning letterwinners.

Whitehead, who shared time between the middle and the right side last year, showed tremendous promise in her first season of competition with the Spartans after redshirting in 1995. She led MSU and was sixth in the Big Ten with a 1.28 blocks per game average.

"Jenny is the heir apparent to the position held by Val Sterk," Erbe said. "She will play exclusively in the middle this season and has the potential to be a dominating force at the net."

Vonderheide turned out to be a pleasant surprise for the Spartans in her rookie campaign. A steady back row player with a solid jump serve, she averaged 1.85 digs per game and tied for fifth in the Big Ten with a 0.35 service aces per game average.

"Tammy really stepped into a lot of pressure situations and contributed to the success of our team last year," Erbe said. "She will have much of the same role this season as a back row specialist."

With the loss of Pavlus and the addition of three Volleyball Fab 50 selections, there is no doubt that there will be some new faces in the lineup this season.

Sarah Gustin (Hesperia, Calif.), Christie Landry (Naperville, Ill.) and Jessica Sanborn (Colbert, Wash.) headline the seven Spartan rookies.

Gustin, a 6-3 middle, is a two-time high school All-American who earned USAV All-America honors this past summer after leading Nike Ichiban to the runner-up spot at the U.S. Junior Nationals.

"Sarah has the size, athleticism and intelligence to make an outstanding player in the middle," Erbe said.

Landry is a 6-2 outside hitter who comes in with tremendous experience with the Sports Performance Club. A two-time USAV All-American, she guided her team to the 1997 U.S. Junior Nationals Championship.

"Christie was, in my opinion, the best high school volleyball player in the nation last year," Erbe said of the St. Francis of Wheaton High graduate. "She has highly developed skills and has the best understanding of the game of volleyball at this age that I've ever seen."

Sanborn stands 6-2 and is another middle who could have an immediate impact after gaining tremendous experience playing with the U.S. Youth National team in August.

"Jessica is a very gifted, all-around athlete," Erbe said. "She can play all positions, both outside hitting positions and the middle."

Another rookie who should have a bright future with the Spartans is six-foot, middle/outside hitter Maren Witzel (Palmer, Alaska). Witzel is a raw, but talented player who was named the 1996 Gatorade "Circle of Champions" Alaska State Player of the Year for volleyball.

"Maren is a great all-around athlete," Erbe said.

Freshman Vicki Basil (Bay City) will play the biggest role of all the newcomers. The loss of Pavlus leaves the Spartan rookie as MSU's starting setter for 1997.

"An increased level of execution from our returning players is very important in order to support the early development of Vicki Basil as she makes the transition from high school and club volleyball to Big Ten and national competition," Erbe said.

MSU's schedule will not be as tough as the 1996 edition, but will still be challenging.

"We had a very strong team last season and we had the appropriate schedule," Erbe said. "This season, we are very young, so we've adjusted the schedule accordingly. The biggest mistake you can make is to overschedule when you have a lot of youth. We need to develop the psychology of the young players and we also need to be able to play a lot of players to see what they can do.

"What we have this season is a whole mixture of teams. We have four tournaments prior to the start of the Big Ten season, and we will be playing Top 10 teams, Top 20 teams and some non-ranked teams. That should give us a lot of opportunities to properly evaluate the players individually and to evaluate what needs to be done to create team continuity."

Once again, MSU will open the campaign with the Goff/MSU Volleyball Classic, August 29-30. The third annual tournament features Duke, 1996 NCAA Regional Semifinalist Southern California and Xavier. The matchup with the Trojans on August 30 will be Erbe's first meeting against the program he led to four national titles during his 12-year tenure from 1976-88.

Following the Goff Classic, the Spartans will host Bowling Green, Drake and Duquesne in the Michigan State Invitational, September 5-6.

After an exhibition match against Team Russia on September 9, the Spartans hit the road for a pair of tournaments. The first tourney takes them to Santa Barbara, Calif., and the Judy Bellomo Classic, September 12-13. MSU will face three NCAA Tournament participants from a year ago in South Florida, UC Santa Barbara and Loyola Marymount. The Spartans are also scheduled to play Portland State.

The Spartans' final non-conference tuneup will be at the Kentucky Conference Challenge in Lexington, Ky., September 19-20, where they will take on Eastern Illinois, Butler and Kentucky.

MSU begins defense of its conference title and puts its 20-match Big Ten home winning streak on the line against Wisconsin on September 26.

Erbe sees defending conference co-champion Penn State as the early favorite in the Big Ten race.

"Penn State has no questions heading into the season," Erbe says. "They are a very talented team with excellent depth. Most of the other upper echelon teams are looking to replace some key players from last year."

The conference coaches seem to agree with Erbe, tabing Penn State as the unanimous preseason favorite to win the Big Ten title. In the poll, the coaches selected MSU to finish second followed by Wisconsin, Ohio State and Minnesota.

"When you look at the Big Ten as a whole, we have one of the best freshman classes in the history of the conference coming into our programs," Erbe said. "Many of those players could have significant impacts on their respective teams."

And where do the Spartans fit into the equation?

"Winning our third Big Ten title is what we hope to accomplish," the Spartan coach says. "We are a team of great promise, but there are some key issues that have to be resolved."