MSU Green traveled to Bloomington, IN last weekend and came home as winners of the Silver Bracket (good for 17th place). Although this wasn’t the finish the team was hoping for coming into the weekend, they overcame multiple cases of injury and illness to go undefeated on Sunday. For the second tournament in a row, the Spartans were without Head Coach Sante Perelli or Assistant Coach Eric Lazowski.
Pool play on Saturday started well, with the second seeded Spartans handling fourth seeded North Central 25-21, 25-19. Due to some bad luck in seeding, MSU’s next opponent was Illinois State, who ended up finishing 3rd overall in the tournament. Green’s blockers were unable to slow down ISU’s hitters and the match was lost 25-15, 25-21. To make matters worse, starting setter Collin Ryan (Soph) went down with an ankle injury and was out for the remainder of the tournament. Green’s last match of pool play was against top seeded Penn State. During warmups, starting middle blocker Jack Ribar (Soph) injured his hip and was out for the rest of the weekend. Since PSU had beaten ISU earlier in the day, a victory against #12 Penn State would leave open the possibility of winning the pool. So, MSU came out hot and crushed the Nittany Lions 25-15 in the first set thanks to an excellent offense run by junior setter Ian Waugaman (in for Ryan). In the second set, some Spartan errors gave PSU an early lead but the team fought hard to recover before losing the second set 25-23. In the third set, with the possibility of winning the pool gone, the team came out flat and Penn State raced to a 15-9 victory.
MSU’s pool play record of 1-2 was good for third place. The Gold Bracket was still a possibility for the Spartans, but they needed to win their challenge match against the Air Force Academy. In addition to Ryan and Ribar being injured, starting middle Eddie Gazaryan (Soph) and freshman defensive specialist Justin Suh were both struggling with illness. Again, the Spartans were unable to win the blocking battle versus an athletic Air Force team and lost in two sets, 25-20, 25-19.
Relegated to the silver bracket, the Spartans did their best to see Day 2 as an opportunity to improve rather than a disappointment. The team was slow to wake up, but still managed to defeat Indiana B 25-23, 25-23 in the first round. Green started off much better in their second match vs. an Illinois B team that had just upset #18 Northern Illinois. After winning the first set 25-21, the Spartans stumbled in the second set and lost 23-25. The third set proved more challenging than expected when hitting errors resulted in a 14-10 lead turning into a 15-14 deficit. On the verge of elimination, Green kept their calm and sealed the win. Captain Juan Manfredi admitted that “[I] felt nervous after being blocked twice in a row on match point, but [Waugaman] showed confidence in me and it paid off when I got a kill to put us back in control of the match.” In the silver bracket semifinal, Green faced fellow Michiganders #16 Grand Valley State University, who had almost won their pool the previous day by taking eventual champions UW-Milwaukee to three exciting sets. To add intrigue to the rivalry, Green saw a familiar face on the other side of the net in Matt Vander Meer, former Spartan standout and team captain who is pursuing a graduate degree at GVSU. In the first set the Spartans jumped out to a big lead thanks to timely blocks and solid defense. GVSU rallied but MSU hung on for a 25-22 victory. GVSU returned the favor in the second set, using strong serves to win 25-22. In the decisive third set, the lead changed back and forth several times before junior middle Matt Petry (in for the injured Ribar) sealed a 17-15 victory with a block kill in the middle. From the bench, Ribar praised Gazaryan and Petry for “hitting very efficiently throughout the day.” Fueled by their victory, the Spartans took down the home team Indiana in straight sets (25-21,25-23) to win the silver bracket.
Despite less than ideal circumstances, MSU Green fought through adversity on Sunday. As the silver bracket is not the most glamorous of competitive arenas, its very easy for even great teams to lose focus and not uphold a high standard of play. It would have been especially easy to roll over after losing two team leaders to injury. The Spartans overcame these obstacles and made sure that everyone in the silver bracket knew who deserved to win. Waugaman and Petry both did a tremendous job stepping up in the wake of injury, and Gazaryan and Suh also deserve recognition for fighting through illness. The team hopes to have its injured players back soon, but will go in to the Big Ten Championships on March 8th with the attitude that they can win with any lineup they put on the court.