Oct. 11, 1996
When Chuck Erbe arrived in East Lansing in January of 1993 after being named MSU's head coach, he had little time to find a quality recruiting class willing to join him in rebuilding a program that hadn't experienced a winning season in over a decade.
A little hard work and foresight helped Erbe sign a class that included Dana Cooke, a talented but oft-injured player from Canada, and Val Sterk, a raw talent with no club volleyball experience.
Three years later, the two players are First-Team All-Americans and the nucleus of a squad that is looking to repeat as Big Ten champions and make a run at a national title.
"Dana and Val have been central figures in everything we've done in this program since 1993 and it's only fitting that they are MSU's first-ever volleyball All-Americans," Erbe said.
"They went through the initial rebuilding stage when everyone beat up on us, but yet it was an opportunity for them to grow and develop in their own ways and mature to the level that they have.
"We have had great leadership in the past and now it's time for Dana and Val to step forward and accept that role and help lead this team in 1996," Erbe says of his co-captains.
The Spartans are coming off their greatest season in program history after finishing 34-3 overall and capturing the first Big Ten volleyball title in school history with a 19-1 mark.
A magical NCAA Tournament run ended with a trip to the Final Four where the Spartans gave eventual national champion Nebraska a tough five-game match.
Despite the success of the '95 campaign, MSU is far from satisfied and with five starters and eight letterwinners returning, the Spartans have the experience to make a return trip to the Final Four and vie for the national title.
"We've been to the Final Four and we have the experience, the talent and the desire to win a national championship," Erbe says. "But I also think there are a number of other programs around the nation that are in exactly the same position that we are in and that is going to be a tremendous challenge for our program."
Erbe's program has come full cirle in the last three years and no longer are the Spartan players a group of unknowns taking the volleyball world by surprise.
"We are now beginning the next phase of our program, the favorites role," Erbe says. "The next level of emotional growth for this team is realizing that there won't be any easy matches this season because everyone will be out to beat Michigan State."
In order for the Spartans to successfully defend their Big Ten title and challenge for the national championship, Erbe must find a replacement for the graduated Courtney DeBolt at setter.
"Courtney was a great leader for us," Erbe said. "She was the heart and soul of last season's team, but we do have six of our seven primary players returning and, with the growth and maturity of some of our younger players, the playing group will be greater than it was last season." Redshirt sophomore Julie Pavlus (Byron, III.) is slated to take over the setting duties in 1996. Pavlus, who redshirted as a freshman following reconstructive knee surgery, appeared in 35 matches last season mainly as a back row player.
But while DeBolt was regaining strength in her surgically repaired knee early last season, Pavlus made six starts at setter and finished the season with a 3.08 assists per game average.
With Pavlus at the helm, the Spartans will be a different team offensively and defensively.
"Our system will be faster with Julie at the helm because she is a quicker athlete," Erbe said. "We will have a faster tempo of play with more combinations and hopefully that will put more pressure on our opponents."
Freshman Allison Ross, a six-footer from Imperial, Calif., will backup Pavlus. Ross was a two-time All-CIF at Imperial High and had an excellent career with the Imperial Valley Heat Club.
"Allison will be trained as a setter for the future," Erbe said. "With her size and competitive ability, she has an outstanding future ahead of her."
Sophomore Kelly Penney (Mundelein, III.), who made the team as a walk-on last season, will train as MSU's No. 3 setter. She also gives the Spartans another solid back row player.
Cooke and Sterk will anchor the middle once again, but look for Cooke to see more action on the outside as well in 1996.
The 6-0 Burlington, Ont., native, who was the MVP of the NCAA Mountain Regional in 1995, was 12th nationally with a 1.58 blocks per game average last season. She also ranked 13th in the Big Ten with a career-high .285 hitting percentage.
"Dana is a tremendous athlete and we plan to utilize her abilities to the fullest this sea- son," Erbe said.
Sterk, a 6-2 native of Byron, Mich., was 10th nationally in 1995 with a .404 hitting percentage and was among the Big Ten leaders with a 1.42 blocks per game average.
"We need Val to be an intimidating factor at the net both hitting and blocking," Erbe said.
Erbe has been pleased with the progress junior middle Lindsey Clayton made in the offseason and is expecting more contributions from the six-foot Marysville, Mich., native.
"Lindsey has matured as an all-around player," Erbe said. "She's an excellent decision maker on the floor and she creates stability for the other five players who are around her, and that is a very valuable ingredient to have."
MSU will also be bolstered by the return of Jenny Whitehead, a 6-4 middle blocker, who redshirted in her rookie season with a shoulder injury.
"Obviously, Jenny's 6-4 frame will be most noticed at the net blocking, but she's also a very powerful attacker," Erbe says. "Hopefully, with a year of strength training behind her, she will come in as a much stronger player and be ready to compete for a starting position or give us some valuable depth."
The Spartans will be tough on the outside with the return of Jenna Wrobel, the 1995 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. As a rookie, Wrobel was sixth in the Big Ten with a 4.59 kills per game average and was seventh with 3.23 digs per contest.
A severe ankle injury in early November limited her playing time and impact late in the campaign, but Erbe is expecting big things from the six-foot sophomore.
"Jenna will be back to 100 percent this season," Erbe said of his All-America candidate. "We are going to emphasize more back row attack this season featuring Jenna."
Junior Veronica Morales is coming off another outstanding campaign after averaging 3.98 kills and a team-high 3.11 digs per contest. Erbe and the Spartans will need significant contributions from junior outside hitter Corie Richard this season. The 6-2 Kentwood, Mich., native contributed 2.00 kills per game last season and was tenacious at the net with a 1.10 blocks per game average.
Stephanie Friedlund (Jackson), another senior who has been with the program since 1993, gives MSU an experienced back row player and a strong server. Much of her playing time will be determined by how she recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
Freshman Tammy Vonderheide (Stewardson, III.) is the rookie who will likely see the most action in 1996. The 5-8 Vonderheide was a two-time All-American while at Stewardson-Strasburg High and gained valuable experience playing for the Twin City Volleyball Club.
Junior Chris De Jarlais (Perry), a transfer from Lansing Community College will give the Spartans added depth on the outside.
"All three newcomers will fit into our program well," Erbe said. "They are all commited to improving their skill level and to the philosophy of MSU volleyball."
The Spartans will find out early if they are up to the task of vying for a national championship. During the course of the 1996 campaign, MSU will face nine NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago and the other three Final Four participants from '95.
"My philosophy has always been that if you are going to be the best, you have to play the best so that by the time you get through the season you have a true measure of what you are capable of doing in all manners of competition," Erbe said.
MSU will begin defense of its Big Ten title with three straight road games before returning to East Lansing in early October to host Michigan (Oct. 4), Penn State (Oct. 11) and Ohio State (Oct. 12).
"The Big Ten will be a very tough conference once again," the 1995 Big Ten Coach of the Year says. "We are not going to be an unknown anymore and therefore every team will be pointing towards us to see if they can upset the defending Big Ten champions."