Bitter defeat ends spikers’ six-match win streak

by Ben Goessling

In Northern Iowa’s volleyball team’s 2002 media guide, four players list their “best sports memory” as their five-game comeback win over Minnesota in the second round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament.

Defeating the Panthers in the Diet Coke Classic over the weekend probably wouldn’t have earned the same distinction from the Gophers, but Northern Iowa’s play Saturday night erased any chance for a feel-good moment.

Their aura lost in the buzz created by the Gophers’ upset of No. 7 UCLA on Friday night, the ninth-ranked Panthers hammered Minnesota in a 30-28, 30-24, 22-30, 30-16 win Saturday night before a stunned Sports Pavilion crowd of 1,713.

“We knew Minnesota would be fired up to play us after the tournament last year,” said Northern Iowa outside hitter Kim Kester. “We wanted to prove something tonight.”

And in finishing 3-0 to win the tournament, the Panthers (8-1) emphatically proved their point: The Gophers (7-2) haven’t overtaken them yet.

“We didn’t have any answers for them,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “They put us in our place.”

The 20th-ranked Gophers landed their second victory over a top-10 team in three weeks Friday night, toppling UCLA in three games.

The Bruins are the highest-ranked team Minnesota has beaten since 1993. Furthermore, the Gophers’ wins over UCLA and then-No. 8 Pepperdine at last month’s State Farm Classic give the program its first pair of wins over top-10 teams in the same season since 1996.

“UCLA is a storied program, and any time you get a win over a team like that, you leave with a lot of pride,” Hebert said. “Our goal was to go at least 2-1 this weekend, so we’re happy with the result.”

Minnesota swept Rhode Island on Saturday afternoon to improve to 2-0 in the tournament, but often looked overmatched against Northern Iowa in the evening match.

After erasing a four-point deficit to win the first game, Northern Iowa hit .441 in the second game and led by as many as 11 points before winning 30-24.

“That first game was definitely a confidence booster,” said Northern Iowa outside hitter Molly O’Brien, who was named the tournament MVP. “I definitely felt we had the edge after we won the first one.”

Six kills by opposite hitter Cassie Busse and a torrid .548 hitting percentage in game three gave Minnesota new life, but the Panthers’ Kim Kester and Shari Vermeer riddled the Gophers’ defense in the fourth game.

Panthers setter Jill Arganbright’s deceptive passing allowed Kester and Vermeer to find every seam in Minnesota’s block, as the two combined for fifteen kills in a 30-16 win.

“That’s just an old-fashioned blowout,” Hebert said.

Busse, setter Lindsey Vander Well, and middle blocker Jessica Byrnes were named to the all-tournament team. Byrnes posted 11 kills and five blocks against Northern Iowa, drawing high praise from head coach Bobbi Petersen.

“We were recruiting her pretty hard last year, so we knew she was a great player,” Petersen said. “I’ve seen her twice now, and I’m extremely impressed with her.”

But it was ultimately the Panthers who left the impression on the Sports Pavilion on Saturday night.

After dropping the fourth game, the Gophers walked dejectedly to their bench, several players in tears.

The match’s tense atmosphere belied its early September date, and Minnesota’s surprising six-match winning streak ended with a thud.

“This just brings us back to reality,” Byrnes said.

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]