Power rankings: Spartans on the rise

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Alexis Mathews, right in green, helps make facing Michigan State --which defeated then-No. 1 Penn State last week -- a tall order for other teams in the Big Ten.

Alexis Mathews doesn't think it's a big deal. She figures it's what any big sister/first-born child would do. When her parents were consumed with her younger brother's fight for life when she was in high school, she stepped forward to look after other siblings.

The maturity that Mathews has shown all her life off the court is evident in both her and her Michigan State volleyball team on the court. The Spartans just had one of the best weekends in program history, knocking off then-No. 1 Penn State and previously unbeaten Ohio State.

"A big part of this weekend was just staying the course, controlling our side of the net," Mathews said. "I was really ecstatic about it. Not many people can say that they've had the chance to go against the No. 1 team in the nation and be able to beat them. It was amazing. I'm just glad I was a part of that.

Matt Mitchell/MSU Athletic Communications

When her prematurely born brother, Wendell (in white shirt), was fighting for life, Alexis Mathews helped her mother, Andrea, looking after siblings Evyn (left) and Edrick II (not pictured). The youngest in the family is brother Winston.

Michigan State (13-1) jumped to No. 9 from 15th in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. And while the Spartans are taking a measured approach to it -- after all, the Big Ten season just started -- they are also happy to now have four consecutive matches at home this weekend and next.

"There is a huge buzz around here," Michigan State coach Cathy George said. "And I would expect some bigger crowds, with people taking a look at what's going on here. It's a great time to capitalize on that."

The five-set victory over Penn State snapped an 18-match losing streak to the Nittany Lions. The Spartans had last beaten Penn State in 2002, and had last won in State College, Pa., in 2001. It was Michigan State's seventh win in the series, versus 37 losses against the five-time NCAA champions.

"We just decided that we needed to leave everything out there," Mathews said of the decisive 15-9 win in the fifth set at Penn State. "There were a lot of extended rallies we were able to stay in. We were able to push them further than they are usually pushed."

The Spartans advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 last year where -- of all teams -- they faced their biggest rival, Michigan. The Wolverines won that regional semifinal match and then upset Stanford to go to the final four, but both Michigan and Michigan State benefited from the exposure.

"I think both our programs have done well over the years, but last year sent us into a little different category," George said. "It shows the strength of the league. It doesn't matter where you finish in the Big Ten, you really can do some damage in the NCAA tournament."

Lauren Wicinski, who was an all-Big Ten first-team player last season after transferring from Northern Illinois, was named Big Ten player of the week after a combined 33 kills and 11 digs against the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes.

Another of the high-impact seniors along with Wicinski is Mathews, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Detroit. When Mathews was between her sophomore and junior years in high school, her mother, Andrea, gave birth to twins nearly three months prematurely.

One passed away after three days, but the other hung on. However, little Wendell was in for a battle that included a lengthy stay at the hospital and then nursing care at home. Mathews did whatever she could to help her parents during a challenging period.

If that took some time away from volleyball, that's just the way it was.

"It was just touch-and-go with [Wendell] for a while," Mathews said. "There were some things with volleyball I couldn't do as frequently as I wanted to, but that was OK. I was 15, and I had always been the oldest who was used to looking after my younger siblings when my parents needed that. I don't want to minimize it, but I'm sure there are a lot of people who've been in situations like that, or even younger than me who had a lot more to deal with."

Mathews figured she'd go to college and study art, and did not expect to play collegiate volleyball. But George saw her potential and offered her a scholarship.

"She doesn't sweat the small stuff," George said. "When I look at her and the challenges she had, I don't think she even knows how far she's come. When she makes mistakes, she just concentrates on fixing them and getting better. She doesn't back down from anything."

Mathews has 768 kills and 501 blocks in her career. And Wendell is a now an active, rambunctious 7-year-old who loves pizza, milk ... and Michigan State volleyball.

Here are this week's espnW Power Rankings:

1. USC (12-1)

After a four-set victory over city rival UCLA last week, the Trojans swept Utah in Salt Lake City. Ebony Nwanebu was selected Pac-12 rookie of the week for the second time this season after a combined 26 kills against the Bruins and Utes. USC is ranked No. 2 in the AVCA poll, and faces No. 7 Stanford on Friday. Also visiting the Galen Center this weekend is Cal.

2. Washington (10-0)

The Huskies are No. 1 in the AVCA poll, which is their first time in the top spot in those rankings since their 2005 national championship season. But in part because of their pedestrian nonconference schedule, they haven't quite won over everyone yet on the No. 1 thing. They got 38 of 60 first-place votes in the coaches' poll, but six other teams got at least one vote for first. Washington, coming off wins over Washington State and Oregon, travels to Colorado and Utah.

3. Texas (8-2)

The Longhorns are featured in the nightcap of Wednesday's doubleheader on ESPNU, facing Baylor at 9 p.m. ET. But if you are looking for an upset, don't hold your breath. Baylor is 2-71 in its series versus Texas. The Longhorns' Chiaka Ogbogu was named Big 12 rookie of the week after Texas' wins over TCU and Oklahoma last week.

4. Penn State (10-2)

The Nittany Lions bounced back from their upset loss to Michigan State by beating Michigan in four sets. If Penn State needed to hit the refocus button after its nonconference season, the loss to the Spartans likely made them do that. This week, the Nittany Lions travel to Indiana and Purdue.

5. Florida (13-1)

The Gators opened SEC play with sweeps at Mississippi State and Mississippi. Senior Chloe Mann had a combined 14 kills with no errors, and her hitting percentage is now .506. Up next are Texas A&M and Alabama, neither of which is expected to challenge the Gators.

6. Hawaii (13-1)

After sweeps last week against Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside, the Rainbow Wahine leave the islands again and head for the mainland. They'll face Long Beach State and UC Irvine this weekend. Hawaii and Long Beach State finished 1-2 last season in the Big West and were picked in that order in the 2013 preseason poll.

7. Stanford (9-2)

The Cardinal swept Bay Area rival Cal last week, then slowed down Arizona State, which had gotten off to a 12-1 start. Next up for the Cardinal is the always-challenging trip to Los Angeles; they face UCLA on Wednesday and USC on Friday. Stanford won the Pac-12 last year at 19-1, with its only loss coming to the Trojans.

8. Michigan State (13-1)

Next up for the Spartans are Illinois and Northwestern this weekend, and Iowa and Nebraska the following weekend. All the matches are in East Lansing, Mich., so it's a good time for the Spartans to build on their victories over Penn State and Ohio State.

9. Minnesota (14-1)

The Gophers won their opening Big Ten matches against Indiana and Purdue, and now have a biggie Friday at Nebraska. Senior Ashley Wittman was the Big Ten's defensive player of the week after compiling 22 digs and 10 blocks in the victories over the Hoosiers and Boilermakers.

10. Nebraska (9-2)

The Huskers are coming off wins over Northwestern and Illinois. So like Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Nebraska is 2-0 in the Big Ten. But something will have to give this weekend as the Gophers and Badgers make their first visits to the Huskers' new home, the Devaney Center, on Friday and Saturday.

Next in line: Arizona State, San Diego, North Carolina, Ohio State, Michigan

Digs

• Missouri is 16-0 and will face host Arkansas at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday on ESPNU. The Tigers swept South Carolina in their SEC opener Friday. The Razorbacks are 9-4 overall and 2-0 in the SEC. This is the first match of Wednesday's doubleheader on ESPNU, followed by Texas at Baylor.

• After soaring to No. 2 in the AVCA poll, San Diego has dropped to No. 13. The Toreros lost their opening match of West Coast Conference play at BYU on Sept. 20, and then fell at home in five sets to Saint Mary's this past Saturday.

• With victories over NC State and Notre Dame last week, North Carolina is 13-0 and moves to No. 11 in the AVCA poll. That ties the highest ranking in Tar Heels' volleyball history. UNC travels to Syracuse and Boston College this weekend.

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