Aug. 15, 2012
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Despite graduating five seniors from last season, including All-American Jenilee Rathje, the Michigan State Spartans and head coach Cathy George are poised to build on a second round NCAA Tournament finish a season ago with strong leadership and a cohesive mix of young and veteran players.
George, in her eighth season at the helm of the Spartans, will look to capitalize on a strong spring season in which many players stepped up. MSU finished the spring with a 9-1 record and relied on Kristen Kelsay and Kori Moster for leadership after being voted off-season captains by their teammates and will also be co-captains in the upcoming season.
"Our team works extremely hard," head coach Cathy George said. "The focus is there, the desire is there and the commitment to our program is there all the way across the board. It started with the senior class last year, they were really driven coming into their senior year and they were able to, along with the underclassmen, establish a culture for our program.
"This group and our captains Kristen Kelsay and Kori Moster have taken it to another level in terms of how our team operates. We are prepared and everybody is very aware of their roles on this team and how to bring out the best in themselves, and others."
The Spartans advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season after beating Arizona, 3-1, before falling to No. 5 Texas, 3-0. MSU will rely on 11 returning letter winners, four incoming freshman and one transfer to make the trip back to the NCAA Tournament.
"We have huge expectations that we work together, that we work hard and that we take things one game at a time," George said. "We have an expectation that we all fill our roles and we do it to the best of our ability and make each other better. I believe that if we keep those things in place that good things will happen. We have to make sure that our foundation is solid and our core is strong. Our strength is in the sum of our parts, it isn't going to be one individual carrying the load for our offense or our defense."
Michigan State lost two of the most decorated players in program history in Jenilee Rathje and Kyndra Abron at the outside hitter position from last season. Among other honors, Rathje was named first team All-Big Ten and third team All-American, while Abron was an All-Big Ten honorable mention and a All-American honorable mention her sophomore year.
One player that could fill the void is Lauren Wiciniski, a Northern Illinois transfer, who will have two years of eligibility remaining and was a two-time All-American for the Huskies. Wicinski is available to play immediately for the Spartans and will add depth to the outside hitter position.
"She will be a very viable option for us," George said of Wicinski. "She joins as a junior and will immediately make an impact on our team. Lauren's power, experience and composure will be a welcome asset as we graduated three pin hitters from this past season. Lauren's unselfish, hardworking, competitive attitude will help balance our attack and give us much needed depth in those positions."
Senior Amy Dentlinger brings versatility to the position and will take on more responsibility this season after appearing in 19 matches last season. Dentlinger was a participant in the U.S. Women's National Volleyball A2 Program this past summer and brings the necessary experience to the court.
"Amy has the ability to play opposite or left side this fall," George said. "She has worked at both of those positions and I think the best is to come for Amy. She is ready to take over as a vital senior for us. She is welcoming and relishing that role. She has shown she is more than capable."
Sophomore Taylor Galloway will also play into the mix at the outside hitter position.
"Taylor has been playing left side for us and she did very well this spring," George said. "Taylor is a very well-rounded player. Her volleyball IQ is exceptional. She has tremendous ball control and passing ability, as well as all the shots in the book. She is able to use power but also finesse in order to score for us."
"We have four players coming in as freshmen," George said. "Ebony Scott is a tremendous athlete and reminds me a lot of Jenilee when she first came in. She hasn't had much experience. As we put time into her she is going to flourish and grow as player.
"Maggie Halloran has a lot of experience and she has played right side her club. She puts up a huge block and is very well versed in the game. Maggie has such a strong work ethic and calmness about her and we look forward to seeing her in the gym.
"Hadley Orr has been sidelined with a surgery since about a year ago," George said. "We are looking to strengthen her shoulder to see where she would fit into the mix this fall. Her defense has been her focus though and she has made great strides."
Alexis Mathews leads the charge for MSU at the middle blocker position and will look to be a force once again in her junior season. The Spartans will also look towards Kelsey Kuipers and Jazmine White in the middle this year.
Mathews was selected to the COBRA Magazine All-Preseason National team and was also selected to participate in the U.S. Women's National Volleyball A2 Program for the second summer in a row. She was a named to the COBRA Magazine All-Region First Team in 2011 and led the team with 155 blocks last season and was fourth in the conference with 1.27 blocks per set. Mathews is also second all-time in career blocks per set at Michigan State with 1.27.
"I'm excited about how far Alexis has come," George said. "Every semester she is our most improved player. We know that Alexis has the ability to take over matches. She can dominate the net and she plays at a level that other people can't match her. She has improved her jump touch to 11 feet and if Alexis reaches high and plays high, there are not a lot of answers for her."
Jazmine White, a sophomore, started 17 matches for Michigan State last season and was fourth on the team in blocks with 66. Her role looks to be expanded this year.
"Jazmine has increased her vertical 3 inches," George said. "Jazmine plays with a real intensity out on the court and an uncanny awareness of how to win. We liked what we saw in the fall, and have seen her gain even more experience and versatility in her offense this last spring."
Junior Kelsey Kuipers will also see time at the middle blocker position after coming off a strong spring season. She started in 17 matches last season for the Spartans and posted 80 kills along with 38 total blocks.
"Kelsey Kuipers is a fast athlete and a high jumper," George said. "This last spring her attack percentage was the highest on the team. She's able to use her athleticism to dominate offensively for us and I expect to see Kelsey showing more of what she can do this year."
Michigan State is stacked at the defensive specialist slot and sophomore captain Kori Moster leads the way for Michigan State. She saw ample time at the libero position last season and is joined by seniors Chelsey Probst and Stefanie Shiramizu, along with sophomore Ryian Hubbard in the backcourt.
"Kori Moster is special," George said. "We really think that Kori is one of the best liberos in the country. We believe that it's not only in her play but it's in everything she does, her attitude and competitiveness. She is vital to our team and is a catalyst for our competitiveness."
Chelsey Probst is in her second season at Michigan State after transferring from Illinois Central College and appeared in five matches last season. She was also named to the Academic All-Big Ten Team last year.
"Chelsey just works her tail off and has really made a name for herself in our gym." George said. "She has been improving quite a bit."
Stefanie Shiramizu is also in her second season for the Spartans after transferring from Wright State. Last season she appeared in nine matches for Michigan State.
"Stefanie is a real competitor," George said. "She has a leadership quality, and is a vocal presence for the Spartans."
Sophomore Ryian Hubbard saw action in 15 matches last season as a defensive specialist for MSU and she recorded 17 digs on the season.
"Ryian is very fast and has a very quick reaction time," George said. "She has been versatile as well with her setting background in high school and is able to do some things that others can't do. Depending on what we need at a particular time, all three of them will see time out there and add to our team."
Junior captain Kristen Kelsay leads the way for MSU at the setter position. Last season she led the team in assists with 726 and was third on the team in service aces with 18. She was also recognized as a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar honored with the Harold & Raynor Shnider Office of the Provost Award that embodies the characteristics promoted by Student-Athlete Support Services, with emphasis on academic performance, community involvement and leadership ability.
"Kristen Kelsay is a true leader," George said. "Kristen has a way about her; she has brought herself up through the ranks with a good old-fashioned work ethic. From the time she was a little kid she has just done everything she could do to be the kind of player that she is today. She exudes that in her practice play and people want to follow her, people want to work with her and for her. She is going to find a way to make everyone better."
Freshman Halle Peterson will also see time at the setter position for the Spartans and brings a strong list of high school accolades to Michigan State. She was an All-American at Rockford High School, a 2011 Michigan Miss Volleyball Finalist and was All-State in 2010 and 2011.
"Halle reminds me a lot of Kristen," George said. "She is a tremendous setter and a tremendous volleyball player. She has great accuracy and location. I believe she is able to be a setter right now in the Big Ten. Its how comfortable, and how ready will she be to step into conference play. Kristen will work with her and take her under her wing. She will have a great mentor who will help develop her.