Road travels not a problem as volleyball sweeps in Michigan

by Brian Stensaas

Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Mich., over 100,000 fans packed inside Michigan Stadium to witness the Wolverines battle cross-state rivals Michigan State in Big Ten football.
Later in the evening, inside Cliff Keen Arena across campus, a scattered crowd of 412 showed up to watch Michigan (13-8, 3-7 Big Ten) take on seventh-ranked Minnesota in Big Ten volleyball.
Which crowd saw more dominant blocks is a toss-up.
Led by Stephanie Hagen’s nine — tying a season-high — the Gophers compiled 17 total team blocks, defeating the Wolverines with 15-5, 15-9, 15-9.
“Our blocking was fairly crisp (Saturday) and all weekend long,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “It was certainly one of the differences tonight. Playing on the road is awfully tough.”
Nicole Branagh had a strong night at outside hitter, swatting 23 kills and finishing with a .364 hitting percentage. Hagen continued her positive offensive output, adding 14 kills to just two errors, good for a .500 hitting percentage.
The win pushed Minnesota’s overall record to 20-1, 9-1 in the conference. The Gophers are off to their best start ever after 21 matches and best-ever Big Ten mark at the midway point.
The Gophers are in a tie with Wisconsin for the conference lead. Ohio State, which shared the Big Ten lead heading into the weekend, is one game back after losing a five-game match to Penn State. It was the third five-game match and second loss for the Buckeyes in the last three weeks.
Saturday night’s domination of the Wolverines was a far cry from the Gophers output Friday night in East Lansing against No. 20 Michigan State.
With the Spartans (12-6,5-4) playing minus regular starters Sarah Gustin and Jessica Sanborn, both out with foot injuries, Hebert said his team underestimated the Michigan State squad.
After losing 15-6 in the opening game the Gophers regrouped and won the final three 15-8, 15-11, 15-4.
“I don’t think either team played well right away,” Hebert said. “We didn’t handle (Michigan State) very well. It was an error-filled match that we were glad to get over with.”
Error-filled is an understatement. At the service line, both squads were about as clean as Andrew Dice Clay’s mouth.
While the Gophers did set a season-high with 13 service aces — six off the jump-serve of Lindsey Berg — they committed 14 service errors. The Spartans had seven aces and a whopping 27 errors.
Minnesota’s big comeback started right away in the second game with Lisa Axel holding serve for the game’s first nine points. Three of those points were service aces. Axel finished with four, matching a career-high and followed Friday’s performance with a solid night of passing Saturday.
“I didn’t have any bad streaks or anything. I thought that I was pretty confident,” Axel said. “We all knew this weekend was important and needed to come together to get ready for the second half of the season.”
Hebert held high praise for Axel, “She had her best weekend as a Gopher,” Hebert said
Bumps and bruises
While the Gophers are at 20-1 and, according to Hebert are in “volleyball heaven,” the team is not without minor setbacks.
“There’s not a starter on our team that doesn’t have something that has worsened,” Hebert said.
The most notable injury is to Lisa Aschenbrenner, who rolled her ankle on the second to last point against Michigan. The injury is not believed to be serious.