Block party in session this season for U volleyball team

The Gophers are second in the Big Ten with 287 blocks this season, trailing Penn State.

Jeff Barthel

Try to deflect 50-mile-per-hour volleyballs being spiked at you within a 5-foot range. Dive, slide and get banged up to save that same ball from finding court space. Don’t allow opponents an open look at any part of an 18-meter by 9-meter boundary.

Those are some of the duties of a good defensive volleyball team. Minnesota (19-9, 12-4 Big Ten) has established itself as a team in the upper echelon of Big Ten defenses.

Digs are a big part of the Gophers’ defensive prowess – they lead the Big Ten with 1,680 – but there are many other ingredients involved in having good defense.

“It starts with the block – you have to have a very well-set block,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “You have to be sound technically, you have to know how to brace yourself, what kind of footwork to use, how to manipulate your platform angles to see what’s going on.”

Some of Hebert’s thoughts are on intangibles. Blocks, however, are recorded statistics.

Minnesota ranks fourth in the Big Ten in blocks. The team has tallied 287 so far this season. Thirteenth-ranked Penn State (22-4, 13-3) – the only Big Ten opponent with more conference victories than the Gophers – leads the conference in blocks (307).

The Lions also boast 6-foot-5-inch freshman Casey Salyer, second in the Big Ten in blocks with 125 this season.

Minnesota has a freshman middle blocker of its own in Meredith Nelson. Standing 6-foot-3, Nelson can cause many problems for opponents’ offenses. She also has 125 blocks this season, leading the Gophers.

She and sophomore Jessica Byrnes share most of the middle blocking duties.

Byrnes has 55 blocks on the season, playing in 96 games.

In 16 games played this season, teammate Athena Mallakis has knocked down 15 blocks. Her .96 blocks per game average is second on the team – Nelson averages 1.25 blocks per game.

Mallakis made her first career block against No. 2 Hawaii earlier this season but did not make her first career start until a home match versus Iowa on Oct. 29.

Mallakis responded with four blocks in her team’s 3-0 sweep of the Hawkeyes.

The sophomore from Simi Valley, Calif., thinks her team has progressed well in the blocking department.

“I think it’s improving more and more,” Mallakis said. “It’s very important to get a block. Emotionally, a block can pick up a team real easily when picking up a stuff block or closing the block paths off.”

Also contributing to the team’s block total are All-American opposite hitter Cassie Busse and senior outside hitter Trisha Bratford.

Busse ranks second on the team, with 79 blocks. Bratford is third on the team; the 5-foot-11 player has knocked down 78 blocks on the season.

Blocks are one thing, but Hebert likes a team that keeps its opponents to a low hitting percentage.

“More than having a good hitting percentage, it’s important to have a good gap between your hitting percentage and your opponent’s, and keeping their hitting percentage to a minimum,” Hebert said.

Minnesota has held its opponents to a .184 hitting percentage. The clip is good for third in the Big Ten.

Penn State reigns supreme in this department as well. The Lions have held down their opponents to a meager .168 hitting percentage – despite allowing Minnesota to put up a .288 hitting percentage in a 3-0 loss to the Gophers on Oct. 18.

No. 20 Illinois (19-9, 12-4) is second in the Big Ten, allowing its opponents a .171 hitting percentage.