Spikers to play Buckeyes, but Penn State is real target

Jeff Barthel

To get back to the top, it’s likely Minnesota’s volleyball team must defeat the cream of the crop this weekend. But before playing Big Ten frontrunner Penn State on Saturday, the Gophers will have to face a pesky Ohio State team Friday.

While Minnesota (11-7 overall, 5-1 Big Ten) is seeking revenge from a season split last year with the Buckeyes, it knows Penn State is the prime target.

The 13th-ranked Lions (16-2, 5-1 Big Ten) are having another solid season.

“(Penn State coach Russ Rose) has really made his mark on the Big Ten,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. “They never beat themselves; they’re a very low-errored team.”

Hebert is right.

The Lions boast the highest Big Ten hitting percentage.

As a team, they hit at a 29.7 percent success rate. They also have a middle hitter – Cara Smith – who comes into this weekend’s play leading the Big Ten with a .464 hitting percentage.

“(Smith is) the best slide hitter in the Big Ten,” Hebert said.

Hebert describes a “slide hitter” as a skill volleyball players use that involves being able to move behind the setter and leap off one foot.

Perhaps this ability is leading to Penn State’s success.

Combating Smith’s play will be Minnesota All-American Cassie Busse.

Busse, Minnesota’s leader in kills and hitting percentage with 284 and .301, respectively, is capable of fighting illness to help her team win.

Playing against rival Wisconsin last Sunday, Busse was in the starting lineup despite fighting a cold.

The senior from Prior Lake, Minn., played a significant role in the team’s first victory over a ranked opponent this season.

Also contributing to her team’s win over the Badgers was freshman middle blocker Meredith Nelson.

Nelson led the Gophers in hitting percentage (.400) and blocks (11), but it was a disadvantaged Busse who led the team in kills (24).

“I voted Busse for player of the year, last year,” Rose said. “Her and (Ohio State’s Stacey) Gordon are the only players you have to worry about both in the front court and the back court.”

This says a lot about Busse’s all-around playing ability.

While Busse should be healthy for this weekend, the status of another key player from last weekend is still up in the air.

Hebert said Nelson has an ankle injury and is questionable for this weekend. However, Hebert has not ruled her out for the team’s matches.

The two other middle blockers on the team are sophomores Jessica Byrnes and Athena Mallakis.

“If Meredith doesn’t start, Athena will probably take her place,” Byrnes said. “We all just have to work a lot harder if Meredith is not in.”

Last year, Byrnes had a solid home match versus Penn State. She led her team with an impressive .625 hitting percentage in a three-game sweep (30-27, 30-20, 30-19) over the Lions.

This victory remains the only straight set Gophers defeat of Penn State in Minnesota history, and it came when both the Lions and Gophers were highly ranked nationally – Minnesota was ninth and Penn State was eighth.

This season, the Gophers might rely on Byrnes to come through with a similar performance on the road.

However, the Gophers must first attempt to notch a victory over an Ohio State team that upset them at the Sports Pavilion last season.

When it comes to the Buckeyes, Hebert favors Gordon.

“She’s the best player in the conference,” Hebert said.

As Ohio State’s leader in kills (282), Gordon will lead a Buckeyes attack that recorded a stunning 30-23, 30-28, 30-25 upset over Minnesota.

The victory came when the sixth-ranked Gophers were on their way to winning a Big Ten championship.

Every season brings new battles and Hebert knows Ohio State will be a test.

But in regard to Penn State, he knows the challenges are more specific.

“We’ll have to pass the ball very well and cut down on hitting errors,” Hebert said.