Now sitting atop the Big Ten standings, the No. 6 Ohio State women’s volleyball team will look to extend its seven-game winning streak as it focuses on a pair of rivalry games against Michigan-based opponents.
On Wednesday, OSU will head north to East Lansing to square off with Michigan State (13-6, 5-3) in the only match against the Spartans this season.
The game will mark just the third time the Buckeyes have been away from St. John Arena since conference play began, and coach Geoff Carlston said his team is excited about being in a hostile environment.
“We enjoy being on the road and embrace that as a road trip,” he said. “Road trips are supposed to be fun, so we’ll be ready for it.”
The Spartans currently lead the Big Ten in kills per set (14.37) and rank fourth in hitting percentage (.255), presenting another tough test for an OSU defense that has held teams to a .153 hitting percentage this season, the second-lowest rate in the conference.
Michigan State’s offense is led by all-Big Ten junior outside hitter Chloe Reinig, who recently returned from an injury that forced her to miss seven games, and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Brooke Kranda, who ranks 10th in the conference in kills per set (3.26).
Although OSU registered a season-high 13 service aces in its win over Purdue on Friday, Carlston said he believes that is one of the areas that OSU needs to improve in and will be a key in keeping the Spartans’ attack off balance.
“I think we can still serve with some tempo, with just a little bit better location, a little bit more pace on it (and) a little bit more depth,” Carlston said. “With a team like Michigan State, if they’re in system, they’re good.”
Senior middle blocker Andrea Kacsits said “getting big hands in their face” will also be important in slowing down Michigan State.
“Our timing is going to be important and our eyes are going to be important,” she said. “Staying calm and not being overwhelmed by the speed of the game is going to be a big key to winning.”
In the only meeting between the two programs last year, OSU came out on top in a five-set victory in Columbus. The Buckeyes hold a 45-29 record in the all-time series and have won five of their last seven matches against the Spartans.
One of OSU’s strengths this season has been its depth, as 10 different players have played in 59 or more sets.
Against Purdue on Friday, sophomore outside hitter Ashley Wenz — who has seldom been used this season — came off the bench and boosted the offense by tying a career high with six kills.
“It shows a lot about our team that you can put anyone out on the court and perform just as well,” Wenz said.
On Sunday against Indiana, senior setter Emily Ruetter had a similar effect in relief of freshman Taylor Hughes, picking up 19 assists to lift a struggling OSU attack.
“Emily doesn’t get a lot of credit … but she does a lot of things in practice and behind the scenes that are really important,” Carlston said.
Carlston said being able to use so many different players works because of the leadership provided by the upperclassmen of the team.
“There’s not a lot of ego involved with playing time, which is very unique in this team,” he said. “I think playing time tends to be one of the things that ends up really hurting teams and breaks down dynamic. Literally everyone on this team has contributed to a victory, and there’s a great buy-in for that.”
Rising in the rankings
OSU has been steadily ascending in the coaches poll during its winning streak and now finds itself just outside the top five at No. 6.
More importantly for their NCAA tournament aspirations, the Buckeyes come in at No. 4 in the RPI, which factors strength of schedule in addition to wins and losses. The Buckeyes are 7-1 against ranked opponents this season.
“It’s great for our program, it’s great for the university,” Carlston said of his team’s standing in the polls. “It’s great for our players to see that recognition.”
After their battle with the Spartans, the Buckeyes are set to head back to the state of Michigan on Saturday to take on their archrival Wolverines. The first serve is slated for 7 p.m.