Tuesday, June 30, 2009

TOSSS Hot Seat: John Kreger (Part Two)

The second part of our exclusive interview with the best volleyball broadcaster in America, MSU's John Kreger, is below. For part one, click here. Once again, his responses are brought to you unedited and in full.

Who's your favorite player, past or present, and why?

I can't give you an all time player, but how about an All-Time Team. Some qualifiers here, I'm only listing players that I have broadcast matches for, so that removes anyone previous to 2001. Also, Only players who have appeared in two or more seasons are eligible. There are players who transferred, and some younger players on this team who were and are very good. I like to look at a multi-year body of work. Rules aside.....here we go!

Nikki Colson (class of 2003): The only player that has started at setter for more than a single season while I've been behind the mic, Nikki would get a nod even if that were not the case. One of only two three-year captains for the Green and White, Colson was a leader in every sense of the word. She gave 110% every match, and demanded nothing less from everyone else. In 15 years as a professional journalist, Steve Yzerman of the Red Wings is my all time favorite leader of a team at any level. Nikki Colson is number two.
Right Side:
Erin Hartley (class of 2001) EH was capable of taking over a match. An All-American,and the most dominant opposite I've seen in Green and White. Coaches in the conference STILL talk about the shots she pulled off. What solidifies her place on this list is the heart she played with. I'll forever remember her being consoled by coach Todd Dagenais after we lost to Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA's that year. That was an unfair seeding (three top 25 teams, MSU, the Badgers, and Notre Dame were in the same 1st/2nd round site, in the name of saving money on travel) and the Badgers were supposed to win. Hartley, however, tried to get the W on her own, almost did, and was despondent at not pulling the upset. When you see a kid with that much heart....it's....special
Outside Hitters (3)
Katie Johnson (class of 2007), Ashley Schatzle (Class of 2007) Kyla Smith (class of 2002)
When Cathy George came to East Lansing in 2005, she named Sophomore Katie Johnson as a Captain. Johnson had shown signs of ability, but was still growing into her game. I'll admit, I wondered if it was the right choice. I do not wonder anymore. KJ was the heart and soul of Spartan Volleyball for three seasons under George, and was one half of the best 1-2 left side punch the school has ever seen. One of two Spartans to play professionally during my tenure, KJ has to her credit countless matches won by putting her team on her back, one of the more fun serves I've seen, and is the only Spartan to break an opponent's nose with a shot. She grew more as a player and person than almost any Spartan I've watched, and is one of my favorite people, too.
Ashley Schatzle sat in Cathy George's office at Western Michigan and was told she had the talent to be an All-American. Four years later at MSU, she was one. She made the jump from MAC to Big Ten Volleyball, and proceeded to become one of the conferences best. Schatz was quiet, and mild mannered....until she stepped on the court. She had every shot in the book, and the intelligence to choose the correct one. Schatz had a look I'll never forget when she was determined. It said, plainly, "I'm not losing today" When I saw that look, I knew it would be a fun night. I hope someday I see a left side team as good as the Shatzle-Johnson duo at MSU, but they've set a standard it will take top-class talent to match.
Kyla Smith, a native of Comox, B. C. had one of the tougher roles ever asked of a player by Chuck Erbe. As injuries cropped up on the 2002 team, Kyla played Left, Right, and one match at Middle for the Spartans. When she was told of these changes, Smith didn't complain, just shouldered the load, and got the job done. An integral part of the sweet 16 run of 2002, Kyla had the shots needed to win, and the mindset of a champion. Coach Erbe relied on her to be steady, and she responded. She's a player that was cut from traditional cloth. When adversity arises, don't ask why, just figure out how to defeat it. She did.
Middle Blockers (2)
This category was the toughest for me to pick, there are so many good players at this position, Jenny Rood, Megan Wallin, Brook Langston, and Jess Hohl all had great moments, and are wonderful people, but the two in my tenure that stand above the crowd are:

Angela Morley (class of 2002), Vanessa King (class of 2009),
A-Mo is the All-Time school leader in blocks, and the ovation she received at Jenison when she broke the mark in 2002 against Illinois was thunderous. She had both the quick, and the slide in her arsenal, and she was a force at the net. When Morley was a blocker, she'd handle 2/3 of the net on her own, and it felt like any shot hit near her was either altered by her block, or easily funneled to passers because of it. When the Spartans went in to Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament, there was much said that Notre Dame's big middle attack might be too much for her. Morley settled the argument by doing what she did best: feeding off of opposition errors, and getting into hitters heads. When it was all over, Morley and the Spartans were off to the Sweet 16, and the vaunted Irish.....went home.
Good athletes help the team with their skill. Great athletes help the team by making others better. That's what makes King special. She is talented in her own right, with every weapon that a middle could possibly possess at her disposal. The force with which she can control the net is second to none. Player of the week accolades aside, and talent non withstanding, what puts this current Spartan on the list before her playing career is done is the way she handles herself as a leader. On every championship caliber team, there is an athlete or two who have the ability to command respect on the practice floor, and in the huddle. Through solid play and leadership by example, King has the ability to be an anchor in a close match, and focus the Spartans. Some of her best moments came playing through injury, in both of the last two seasons. In the 2007 NCAA tournament and the 2008 match against Illinois in Champaign, King played through the pain. To quote the famous movie title, that's True Grit.
Defensive Specialists (3)
Emily Engel (Class of 2002), Nicole Colaluca (Class of 2006), Miken Trogdon (Class of 2007)
Engel was the first Spartan of my time with them to truly use her serve to turn a set. She holds the Spartan invitational record for aces in a match, and for a single tournament. Her jump serve could pull a team ridiculously out of system. She was a fiery competitor who took it upon herself to handle some of the conferences best attackers singlehandedly. Between Morley's block at the net, and Engel on defense, a great many hitters left a match with the Spartans frustrated. What I'll remember most about Emily however, was something she did as a senior Captain in 2002 before the 2nd round NCAA tournament match with Notre Dame. At pregame meal that day, each of us had at our seats a cardboard cut out caricature of us. Emily got up, told us that these figurines represented us as members of the Spartan Family She noted that if we were to beat the Irish that night, it would take the effort of the WHOLE family, from players, to coaches, to.....broadcasters. The message hit home, and we got the win. For Engel, the name on the front of the jersey meant more than the name on the back.
Nicole Colaluca can be summed up in one story. In 2005, Cathy George's first year, Colaluca had 45 digs (a school record) in a five set loss to Sacramento State. The Spartans, however, dropped the match. When I congratulated her on the record that night, she simply said "I'd rather have 20 digs...and a win." Cola rewrote the MSU single season record books for digs, and would hold the MSU career mark no question had she played for four years in East Lansing instead of two. A relentless competitor, she was an anchor for the Spartan defense, and could almost patrol the space behind the three meter line by herself. Cola's defense, I believe, was one of the things that allowed the MSU offensive stars to take more risks and grow into the George offensive scheme. Nicole was gone when the Spartans reached the sweet 16 in 2007, but the spirit she showed got the Spartans to the dance in 2006,and helped lay the groundwork for defensive stars to come.
Although her career numbers aren't at the top of any list, Trogdon was special in that she came to compete every night, even in 2004 and 2005, when the transition between Chuck Erbe's final year and Cathy George's first meant nearly 2 losses for every Spartan win. Miken was fearless, and played with an energy that had the potential to lift her teammates. Her dig total in 2007 ranks among the all-time best at MSU, and she was a source of calm in an otherwise very young Spartan defense. One of the more accomplished students in the history of Spartan Volleyball, Trogdon juggled the demands of an athlete with those of TWO degrees, criminal justice, and Spanish. Above all else, however Trogdon gets a place on this list for her efforts the second half of her senior year. Halfway through the season, Trogdon hit a bit of a wall. That can happen to athletes, and Cathy George sat her starting Libero for a match. As a journalist, I'm faced every day with professional athletes who when put in a similar situation whine, moan, and mail the season in. Trogdon did the polar opposite. She dedicated the rest of her season to her teammates, refocused, embraced her role as a leader, and had 13 matches that she'll not forget. She saved the best for last, posting a career high 23 digs in her last match, the Sweet 16 loss to Nebraska. She learned her lesson, and in the end, taught us all one on what it means to be part of a TEAM.

What are your observations on the state of MSU's volleyball program now? Are we headed in the right direction under Cathy George? I've worked for two coaches in my eight seasons at Michigan State, and I've interviewed many more. If I had my choice of any volleyball coach in the country, I'd choose Cathy. The time I've spent with her has been some of the most rewarding of my career. What impresses me most about the work that Cathy and her staff are doing, is the national respect that Michigan State has received on the recruiting trail. In the 4 years that Cathy's been in East Lansing, there is a definate improvement in the caliber of athlete committing to Michigan State. Top athletes now are considering MSU more than ever when choosing where to play in college. When an MSU coach walks into a gym, people take notice, and MSU is on track to claim its place among the top programs in the conference, and the country.

Equally as impressive is the reaction that the community has toward the team. Cathy and her staff have not only quality athletes, but leaders in the community. I see hundreds of young women, aged 5-15 who look to MSU Volleyball players as a group of people that serve as role models, and an example for young women everywhere. The work that Cathy, her staff, and her players are doing deserves commendation, and I couldn't be prouder of all that they've done.

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