College notes: MSU volleyball two wins from Final Four

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Cathy George hasn’t gotten to see much Michigan State basketball this year.

There’ll be time for that — time for potentially seeing her son, Conner, a former walk-on who’s now on scholarship, possibly be part of a Final Four team.

For now, though, Michigan State’s volleyball coach has her sights set on a Final Four of her own.

The Spartans are two wins from that feat, a road that continues at 4 p.m. Friday against Illinois in State College, Pennsylvania.

Michigan State (23-8) and Illinois (23-10) square off in a Sweet 16 matchup, their second meeting of the season. The Spartans swept the regular-season meeting in three games, at home November 10.

“It would be absolutely huge, just to move forward in the program,” George said Thursday afternoon. “We’ve been to the Sweet 16.

“Just, really, it’d be awesome to be able to move on and get to the Final Four.”

The winner of Friday’s match will face Penn State or Missouri in the regional finals at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Michigan State lost, 3-1, to Penn State, the 2013 and 2014 national champion, on November 1. It’s never faced Missouri.

Michigan State is a senior-laden team, one that’s been through all the ups and downs, so George said she didn’t feel the need to give some big speech Thursday about what it means to be here, what it would mean to be there, etc.

The Spartans are in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive year, but it’s just the third time in that span they’ve made it past the opening weekend. Each of the previous two times, in 2012 and 2013, it lost in the Sweet 16. Michigan State hasn’t made the Final Four since 1995, the program’s lone appearance.

George, in her 13th year at Michigan State, has made the Final Four before, as head coach of Texas-Arlington in 1989. That year, she became the first-ever female coach to get her team to the volleyball Final Four.

This team has perhaps as good a shot as any she’s coached at Michigan State to get to that point. And when did she know that?

“When we recruited them,” she said, with a laugh. “We knew we had a talented group coming, it was a matter of developing them, getting them a little older, more mature, more experienced. We felt really good about this team.”

Michigan State has seven seniors it relies on heavily, often with a different player starring every night.

Seniors Autumn Bailey, Alyssa Garvelink and Rachel Minarick lead the way. Bailey has 373 kills and Garvelink 275, and Minarick has 1,085 assists as a setter. Seniors Brooke Kranda and Holly Toliver have 315 and 303 kills, respectively. Bailey, Toliver and Minarick lead the defensive effort.

In Illinois, Michigan State gets one of the better blocking teams in the nation.

The Spartans breezed through the opening two rounds, sweeping Missouri State in the opener, and beating Creighton in four games in the second match.

The road gets tougher, as it always does this time of year — just as it will this March, when Cathy George hopes her son is on the brink of a Final Four, too.

Still, the focus is what’s immediately in front of the Spartans.

“This team is just very grounded,” she said. “They understand. We’re in a grind in the Big Ten, they understand you have to go night to night. You can’t prepare beyond that.”

This and that

■For the second time in three years, the Spring Arbor women’s soccer team has won the NAIA national championship. It beat Benedictine (Kansas) College, 2-0, in the final Saturday in Alabama. Junior Bethany Balcer, of Hudsonville, Michigan, had seven goals during the tournament run, with both goals in the title game. She now has 98 goals for her career.

“Late this season, our mantra has been ‘lean into it’ as we’ve asked our players to lean into uncomfortable and challenging situations, not just on the field, but in their everyday lives,” coach Jason Crist said. “They are champions.”

■Rivalry season has begun in college hockey, with Michigan State (7-8-1) and Michigan (6-6-2) playing a home-and-home Thursday (Ann Arbor) and Friday (East Lansing). Both have new coaches, and these are the teams’ lone set meetings until February 9 and 10, the latter at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. They could square off in the GLI at LCA on Jan. 2, depending how the semifinal games go.

■Michigan and Michigan State toyed with their football uniforms this year, for good or bad, but it was Wayne State’s stars-and-stripes uniforms that made USA Today’s list of the best alternate uniforms for 2017. Wayne State checked in at No. 11, the lone non-Division I school on the list.

■Oakland soccer alum Mitch Hildebrandt, a goalkeeper, signed with Atlanta United FC of the MLS this week. He’s the second Oakland alum to head to MLS, following DC United goalkeeper Steve Clark.