Gophers get top seed, but not home court

by Kent Erdahl

When Minnesota’s volleyball team gathered to learn its postseason schedule Sunday night, Gophers players and coaches finally heard they had a seat reserved at the head of the NCAA postseason table.

But before all the cheers had finished echoing through the Williams Arena Club Room, that seat was promptly pulled out from under them.

Immediately after learning they had secured a top regional seed with the No. 4 seed in the 64-team NCAA Tournament, the Gophers (28-4, 17-3 Big Ten) learned they would have to play their first two matches on the road.

Though the No. 4 seed was the team’s highest ever, Minnesota had expected to host all of the tournament matches leading up to the Final Four in Long Beach, Calif.

“It was a bit of a let down. I guess that would be the only way to put it,” senior Erin Martin said. “We were disappointed, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. We’ve been waiting for this all year, and it doesn’t matter where they put us.”

Minnesota will travel Thursday to New Haven, Conn., to play first-round opponent Long Island (32-6) and, if victorious, Minnesota will face either Yale (17-7) or Albany (27-6) on Friday.

Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said the team’s road trip could actually be the result of the selection committee trying to protect the Gophers, who will return to the Sports Pavilion to host the regional tournament if they make it through the first two rounds.

“By sending us (to Connecticut), I think they decided to give (a more favorable schedule) to us this year,” Hebert said. “On paper, at least, it looks like we have a very sound and comfortable first- and second-round draw.”

Hebert remained positive in all of his comments after the announcement, particularly because of the seeds Big Ten teams received.

Big Ten champion Penn State (27-2, 18-2) earned the No. 2 seed, and Ohio State (27-3, 17-3) is No. 5.

A big reason for the strong Big Ten showing was the way the teams finished.

While top Pac-10 programs Southern California and Washington both lost in the days before the selections were made, all three Big Ten contenders swept their weekend competition.

Minnesota went into its final two matches needing two wins and some help to claim a share of the Big Ten title.

The Gophers did their part, sweeping Iowa at home Wednesday and doing the same Friday to Illinois in Champaign, Ill., but Penn State swept, too.

The Gophers started their weekend with a record-setting performance against the Hawkeyes.

Minnesota set a new Big Ten record for lopsided victories in rally scoring when it downed Iowa 30-10 in the second game.

Minnesota relied on a dominant defensive effort in the match, holding Iowa (10-22, 2-18) to a .041 hitting percentage throughout.

On Friday, Minnesota again used defense to sweep Illinois (18-10, 10-9) in Champaign – something no team had done since Nov. 1, 2003.

The Gophers outdug the Illini 63-45 in the three-game contest. Four Gophers finished with double-digit digs, while only one Illini player reached that mark.

Hebert said the sweep Friday at Illinois was particularly important because it showed how well the team can play on the road.

Junior Paula Gentil said she didn’t look at things as positively as her coach, but she was happy that at least the scenery would be a little different.

“I was really upset, because you work so hard to get a fourth seed, and we have to go on the road. But, then again, we were just fortunate to make the tournament,” Gentil said.

“Plus we get to go to Connecticut. I’ve never been to Connecticut. At least it’s not Ohio, or Michigan, or something.”