1996 In Review
With four starters back from its 1995 Final Four team, the Michigan State volleyball team had high expectations heading into the 1996 campaign.
The season began with MSU being tabbed as the No. 1 team in the Volleyball Magazine preseason poll. While the ranking may have been high for a team looking to replace its starting setter, the ranking was still an important milestone for the program.
"Were we in fact the No. 1 team in the nation? ... at that time it wasn't important to us," head coach Chuck Erbe said. "It was the fact that we were being given the recognition that Michigan State volleyball was one of the finest programs in the nation. Given the history of the program and where we had been four years prior to that, the ranking was a significant accomplishment."
While the Spartans would not end the 1996 season as national champions, they did repeat as Big Ten champions, sharing the title with Penn State. MSU ended the campaign with a 26-7 overall record and a mark of 18-2 in the Big Ten.
The Spartans went through many ups and downs in 1996, but their courage and determination guided them to another conference title and a regional final appearance.
The Spartans opened the season with one of the toughest tournaments in the nation, the Goff/MSU Volleyball Classic. The tournament featured 1995 Final Four participants Texas and Stanford along with NCAA Tournament participant Houston.
MSU opened the classic with a tough five-game loss to Texas, dropping the fifth game by a score of 17-15.
MSU responded with a four-game victory over Houston behind the 24-kill performance of Val Sterk. The Spartans closed out the Goff Classic with a three-game loss to Stanford to fall to 1-2 on the season. Sterk was the only Spartan to land a spot on the all-tournament team.
The Spartans schedule didn't get any easier as a two-match trip to Lincoln, Neb., to face the defending national champions was on the horizon.
The first match, played before a raucous crowd of 3,168, went to five games with the Cornhuskers pulling out a 15-13 win in the final game. Jenna Wrobel led the Spartans with 19 kills, while Sterk added 18 kills, 15 digs and seven blocks and Dana Cooke contributed 16 kills, 12 digs and six blocks.
The Spartans were no match for Nebraska the next night, falling easily in three games, 15-11, 15-8, 15-7.
While the Spartans stood at 1-4, they were not about to give up.
"A lesser team would have been devastated by that start," Erbe said. "What we did was use it as a learning experience to say that we just played the toughest competition in the nation and we easily could have been 3-2 with a couple of breaks.
"Those first five matches allowed us to take stock of where we were compared to where we wanted to go and then plot our course as to how we needed to get there," Erbe added. "If we had played a lesser schedule, we wouldn't have had a good barometer of what we needed to do to achieve our final goal which was to repeat as Big Ten champions and to return to the Final Four and put ourselves in a position to compete for the national championship.
The Spartans regrouped in a big way following their 1-4 start, reeling off 17-straight wins.
"I was very proud that our team responded after encountering some early season diversity," Erbe said. "I feel those competitive struggles laid the foundation for our second Big Ten title."
The turnaround began with four victories and the Cleveland State Invitational Tournament title with wins over Niagara (3-0), West Virginia (3-0), Loyola (3-0) and Cleveland State (3-0). Cooke landed a spot on the all-tournament team, while Sterk was named the tourney MVP.
MSU closed out its non-conference schedule with an easy 3-0 home victory over Kentucky.
The Spartans, who were the preseason favorites to defend their Big Ten title, opened conference play on the road with wins over Indiana (3-1), Purdue (3-1) and Northwestern (3-0).
Following those three road wins, the Spartans returned to Jenison Field House for three critical matches against Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State.
The Wolverines came to town on Oct. 4 and 3,121 fans turned out for Jam Jenison II. Prior to the match, MSU First Lady Joanne McPherson presented members of the 1995 squad with their Big Ten Championship rings.
The pre-match ceremonies helped lift the defending champions to a four-game victory over the Wolverines and extend its winning streak to nine matches.
MSU's biggest test of the Big Ten season to that point would come that weekend when the Spartans faced off against No. 2 Penn State and No. 14 Ohio State.
In the match with the Nittany Lions on Oct. 11, Wrobel (27), Veronica Morales (22) and Sterk (19) combined for 68 of MSU's 88 kills in a thrilling five-game victory. Cooke also added 15 kills, 19 digs and a match-high eight blocks in the win.
The Spartans had little time to enjoy their victory over Penn State with the Buckeyes in town on Oct. 12. Wrobel turned in another spectacular performance to lead MSU to a four-game win over Ohio State. The Spartan sophomore hit .378 with 23 kills, 13 digs and two blocks.
Her performances against Penn State and Ohio State earned the outside hitter Big Ten and AVCA National Player of the Week honors and put the Spartans in sole possession of first-place in the Big Ten standings.
The following weekend, the Spartans picked up road wins over Iowa (3-0) and Illinois (3-1), before returning home to down Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern in 3-0 wins.
A key three-match road test awaited the Spartans in early November with matches against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, a stretch that could decide the Big Ten title.
MSU opened the road swing with a 3-0 win over the Wolverines behind the 21-kill performances of Sterk and Wrobel.
The Spartans' 17-match winning streak was snapped on Nov. 8, when Ohio State handed MSU a 15-12, 5-15, 12-15, 13-15 loss. The road wouldn't get any easier the next night with a nationally televised match against Penn State on ESPN2.
In the modified scoring match, the Nittany Lions came out with a 19-9, 10-14, 18-10, 17-13 victory.
The losses to Ohio State and Penn State left the Spartans in a tie for first place in the Big Ten heading into the final three weekends. While an outright conference title was likely out of reach, MSU was still in a position to clinch a share of its second-straight Big Ten title.
The Spartans responded with avengance, downing Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana by 3-0 scores to clinch a share of the conference crown.
Prior to the win over Indiana on Nov. 30, MSU's three seniors, Cooke, Sterk and Stephanie Friedlund were honored for their accomplishments and commitment to the Spartan program. The trio was part of Erbe's first recruiting class and helped restore pride in MSU volleyball.
Next up for the champs was the NCAA Tournament. After receiving a first-round bye, the Spartans were paired up against Texas A&M, the team that knocked MSU out of the NCAA Tournament in 1994 in its first-ever NCAA postseason bid.
A record-crowd of 4,937 fans at Jenison Field House were treated to an unbelievable match.
The first game began with A&M pulling out to a 4-0 lead and Cooke going down with a severe ankle injury. The Spartans tried to regroup without their leader and by the time Cooke returned to a thunderous ovation, MSU was able to claw out a thrilling 19-17 victory in game one.
The second game wasn't any easier and with the match tied at 13 all, Sterk took matters into her own hands. The Spartan senior slammed down a kill to give MSU the sideout and tallied a point on a slide play to give MSU a 14-13 lead. The Byron Center native ended the game with a block solo to give MSU a 15-13 win and a 2-0 lead in the match.
Game three was another see saw contest with A&M rallying from a 13-10 deficit to pull within one point. But Wrobel returned the serve to MSU and put them up 14-12 with back-to-back kills off the block. The match ended with a 15-12 Spartan win after Cooke teamed with Jenny Whitehead to stuff an Aggie attempt.
Wrobel ended the match with 25 kills and four blocks, while Sterk added 16 kills, 10 digs and four blocks. Whitehead turned in a tremendous performance at the net with 10 blocks, while Cooke's six-kill, nine-dig, six-block performance was almost miraculous.
While the Spartans were fortunate to escape with a win over the Aggies, the repercussions of the match would later haunt them.
Cooke's ankle was severely sprained and would be a problem for the remainder of the NCAA Tournament. But more importantly, sophomore Julie Pavlus' back problems were getting worse. Throughout the season, the Spartan quarterback played over severe back pain, but the Texas A&M match proved to be the worst for the setter.
"Julie Pavlus has severe muscle spasms in her back," Erbe said following the Texas A&M match. "There is no celebration in the locker room when your setter is lying on the floor writhing in pain. She played her heart out."
The victory over the Aggies sent MSU to Gainesville, Fla., for the Central Regionals. MSU faced off against Long Beach State in the semifinals, pulling out a 15-4, 13-15, 15-6, 15-8 victory. Morales pounded out 19 kills for the Spartans, while freshman Tammy Vonderheide was stellar in her first regional appearance with five service aces and 12 digs. Whitehead also turned in a fine performance with five kills and a career-high 11 block (3 BS/8 BA).
The victory over the 49ers set up a regional final showdown against No. 1 Florida, which knocked off Ohio State in the semifinals.
MSU opened the match in impressive fashion, hitting .425 as a team in a 15-7 victory. Sterk pounded out eight kills in 10 attempts to lead the effort, while Cooke added five kills and two blocks.
The once-beaten Gators responded by returning the favor in a 15-7 win in the second game. Game three saw Florida pull out a 15-9 victory, setting up the critical fourth game.
The Gators jumped out to a 7-1 lead and it looked as if they were going to easily advance to the national semifinals. But the Spartans wouldn't go away easily, tying the match at 13 behind the efforts of Wrobel and Cooke.
After Florida went up 14-13 on a back court kill, there would be nine sideouts before another point was decided. Whitehead's kill from the middle evened the game, while Wrobel's leftside kill off the block put the Spartans up 15-14. A Spartan hitting error returned the serve to Florida and the Gators reeled off three-straight points to pull out a 17-15 victory and end MSU's season.
Sterk hit .419 with 23 kills and eight digs in her final match as a Spartan, earning a spot on the all-tournament team. Cooke, who also made the all-tournament team, hit .361 with 16 kills, 17 digs and five blocks in her final Spartan effort.
"I feel we would have returned to the Final Four had our setter been healthy in the latter stages of the season," Erbe said. "She strained her back midway through the Big Ten season and never really did recover from that. Her most intense struggle with that injury took place during the NCAA Tournament. It had an impact on our ability to be competitive, particulary on back-to-back nights. She gave a courageous effort in the NCAA Tournament. Without her we would not have even been in a position of being in the regional finals against Florida."
While the Spartans fell short of their goal of returning to the Final Four, it was another outstanding season for the program. And, in what has become a tradition at MSU, the Spartan faithful turned out at the airport to greet the team upon their return flight from Florida. The fans came to recognize the efforts of an outstanding team and to salute a trio of seniors, whose impact on the program will be felt for years to come.