Livingston leads Wisconsin spikers to Pavilion

Brian Hall

Minnesota’s 21st ranked volleyball team heads into the final weekend in the first half of Big Ten play with a 4-4 conference record, looking to define its place in the Big Ten race.

The Gophers (10-6, 4-4 Big Ten) finished second in the conference last season but currently are in a pack of five teams fighting for fourth place. All five teams – Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern – are separated by only one game in the standings.

“I believe we are at the level we expected to be,” coach Mike Hebert said. “But the other teams in the conference, I think, are playing better than imagined.

“Not to mention, the lower teams are playing at a higher level than I have ever seen them play before.”

This weekend the Gophers might get a true feel of where they stand as Big Ten leading No. 6 Wisconsin (14-2, 8-0) comes to the Sports Pavilion on Friday night, followed by the Wildcats (8-7, 4-4) on Saturday.

The Badgers are off to their best start in conference history. They have lost only two games in Big Ten play and have swept their last six opponents.

Wisconsin is led by a pair of 2000 AVCA All-Americans, first-teamer Sherisa Livingston and second-teamer Lizzy Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald is second in the nation in assists, dishing out 14.23 helpers per game while Livingston, the 2000 Big Ten co-player of the year, is averaging 5.07 kills per game, second in the conference.

“(Livingston) is just incredible,” Hebert said. “We were watching tape and she is just up blasting the ball over the top of (Northwestern’s) Erika Lange who is 6-foot-3. There is nothing you can do to stop that. You just hope she has one of her matches where she doesn’t dominate the way she normally does.

“I have never coached a team that has been able to shut her down or do anything to stop her from what she wants to do.”

Hebert believes Livingston is even more explosive than departed Minnesota All-American Nicole Branagh, the conference’s all-time leader in kills.

“Even Nicole couldn’t dominate like Livingston can,’ Hebert said. “I don’t think that it’s even a race. Livingston is simply unstoppable, where as there are strategies against Nicole that could limit her.”

Northwestern has already doubled its win total from last year thanks in part to its two middle blockers Lange and Sarah Ballog. Lange is averaging a Big Ten best 1.46 blocks per game and Sarah Ballog is third with 1.37 per game.

“Our strength would definitely have to be our blocking,” Wildcats coach Keylor Chan said. “Blocking along with serving are our good points.

“Passing is a weakness for us and it is something we work on every week.”

An upset of Wisconsin and continued dominance of Northwestern – Minnesota has won 15 straight against the Wildcats – and the Gophers would inch nearer to the top of the standings while distancing themselves from the middle.

 

Brian Hall covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]