By Eric Ambinder
Daily Sports Writer
After Christine Nolan’s loss at No. 2 singles to Michigan State’s Jean Willmann on Saturday night, an intense Michigan spectator said aloud, “We’re getting our butts whooped.”
“Just wait,” said a neighboring fan, “I know we can fight this blaze.”
She was right.
Trailing 2-1 and dropping the first set in five of the six singles matches, the Wolverines (2-1 Big Ten, 8-3 overall) rebounded to pound the Spartans (0-3, 8-7) 5-2 at the Varsity Tennis Center on Saturday.
“We got off to an excellent start,” Michigan State coach Tim Bauer said. “Doubles was a big boost for us and winning a whole bunch of the first sets. Then it became a mental battle, and this year Michigan won it.”
Last year, the Spartans edged the Wolverines 4-3 at Michigan State, which proved to be the turning point in their season. This year, the Wolverines were able to pool individual momentum and overcome the Spartans’ early charge.
“I’m awfully proud of the team,” Coach Bitsy Ritt said. “We talked about ‘Creating the Mo,’ and it turned into a great win.”
With her family loudly cheering her on, Michelle DaCosta caught fire after the first set of her No. 1 singles match, toasting Caroline Lay 4-6, 6-0, 6-0 to even up the match 2-2.
“It was really impressive to see her fight to come back,” said DaCosta’s brother, Patrick. “My sister played so hard.” Her family picked a perfect weekend to travel from Ohio.
DaCosta’s comeback ignited the Wolverines, as they won the remaining three matches – all come-from-behind three-set victories. Joanne Musgrove capitalized on her opponent’s frustration, posting a 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory. Down 1-4 in the final set, Musgrove regrouped mentally.
“I made too many errors (in the beginning),” Musgrove said. “Then all of the Michigan fans got behind me, and it helped a lot.”
After watching Musgrove’s thriller, fans walked to the opposite side of the Varsity Tennis Center and helped spark Kim Plaushines’s 6-7 (0-7), 6-4, 6-4 victory over Michigan State’s Karen Gustafson at No. 4 singles – melting any hopes of a Spartan comeback.
Leanne Rutherford continued the winning trend, beating Michigan State’s Keri Thompson 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 6-0 at No. 3 singles for Michigan’s fifth singles win of the evening.
Asked why his team smoldered after a scorching start, Bauer responded, “I think both teams were missing some people (because of injury). We were missing numbers 1, 3, and 4, we have been for awhile.”
The Wolverines revenged last year’s narrow 4-3 loss without two of their key starters. Debra Streifler, who had a team-high 15 singles wins going into this weekend’s competition, did not compete due to illness, and No. 2 starter Kavitha Tipirneni’s regular season ended when she fractured her left elbow two weeks ago in practice.
“They’re saying six to eight weeks, I’m thinking six,” said the optimistic Tipirneni after Saturday’s match. “The hardest thing is just watching the matches.”
But the Spartans feel worse than Tipirneni. After building a huge lead, they couldn’t extinguish the Wolverines.
“This team has a lot of heart and fight,” Ritt said of her team’s finish. “I would never count this team out. I have confidence in every single player no matter what the score is, no matter what happens.”