Minnesota begins lighter schedule with Michigan State at home

Minnesota begins a stretch of matches against unranked teams on Wednesday.

Senior outside hitter Hailey Cowles serves against Penn State Tuesday November 4, 2011 at Sports Pavilion in Dinkytown.

Image by Erin Westover

Senior outside hitter Hailey Cowles serves against Penn State Tuesday November 4, 2011 at Sports Pavilion in Dinkytown.

by Charlie Armitz

ItâÄôs been a seesaw season for the No. 16 Gophers volleyball team, but with a slightly easier schedule on the horizon, some consistency may finally be within reach.

Minnesota (14-9, 7-7 Big Ten) begins a stretch of four of six matches against unranked teams Wednesday, when it hosts unranked Michigan State at 7 p.m. at the Sports Pavilion.

The Spartans (18-8, 7-7 Big Ten) havenâÄôt always played like an unranked team in 2011, but they did lose in straight sets to the Gophers on Oct. 8 in East Lansing, Mich.

Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush said Saturday that her team played one of its better matches of the season against MSU âÄî but that the same canâÄôt be expected this time.

âÄúMichigan State has a nearly different lineup every match,âÄù Bush said. âÄúTheyâÄôre probably looking for that signature win of the season, and they no doubt would like to get it against us.âÄù

The Spartans have yet to defeat a top-five Big Ten team all season, with their closest efforts coming in five-set losses to current national No. 2 Nebraska and Illinois, currently the seventh-ranked team in the country.

MSU has also pushed Minnesota to five sets the last two times it has played at the Sports Pavilion, losing both matches.

The Gophers havenâÄôt swept the Spartans at home since 2005.

âÄúTheyâÄôre a good team âÄî thereâÄôs no doubt about it,âÄù Bush said. âÄúThereâÄôs a lot of five-set matches this year across the nation, let alone in the Big Ten. EveryoneâÄôs good, and if the other teamâÄôs not ready to play, [the match] can last a long time.âÄù

In their last three matches, the Gophers have looked as ready as theyâÄôve been the entire Big Ten season.

After upsetting then-No. 3 Illinois in Champaign, Ill., on Oct. 29, Minnesota returned home the next weekend to play two solid matches against then-No. 6 Penn State and No. 22 Ohio State.

The Gophers lost to the Nittany Lions in five sets after trailing 2-0 and defeated the Buckeyes in four sets the next night.

âÄúI think the last three matches have been a lot more consistent than previous matches,âÄù senior outside hitter Hailey Cowles said. âÄúWeâÄôre not on this huge roller coaster. WeâÄôre on these little roller coasters, so itâÄôs more obtainable to get back to a high.âÄù

When the Gophers havenâÄôt played their best team volleyball, theyâÄôve relied on the consistent play of Ashley Wittman, who ranks second in the Big Ten with 4.63 kills per set.

The sophomore outside hitter had a career-high 31 kills in FridayâÄôs loss to PSU. Her 52-kill, 31-dig weekend earned her Co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

Wittman has posted 10 or more kills in 22 of the GophersâÄô 23 matches in 2011, including her current streak of 18 consecutive.

She seems to have developed a connection with freshman setter Kellie McNeil, who has started the last four matches in place of Mia Tabberson. In the 18 sets that McNeil has set this season, Wittman has averaged 5.22 kills.

While WittmanâÄôs play has remained steady, her teamâÄôs play hasnâÄôt always âÄî until now, the sophomore said.

âÄúI think itâÄôs finally coming together,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúItâÄôs been an up-and-down season so far for us, but weâÄôve had a couple of good matches.âÄù

TheyâÄôll need another one to beat MSU, which is one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the Big Ten.

âÄúThey have a really good line of hitters,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúTheyâÄôre very tall, they can jump out of the gym and theyâÄôre a well-rounded team. WeâÄôre going to have to play just as good or even better than we did at their home.âÄù