Gophers without Gentil, Lorenzen for N. Iowa match

Minnesota’s volleyball team is only heading two hours south for Wednesday night’s match with No. 6 Northern Iowa. But the matchup will tell coach Mike Hebert and his squad plenty.

“It’s a good test for us,” Hebert said. “This is the time to see what we can do when having injuries or lineup changes.”

The 22nd-ranked Gophers (3-5) head into tonight’s Border Battle match in Rochester, Minn., against the Panthers (7-1) – the team’s fifth match against a nationally ranked opponent – shorthanded, which is the reasoning behind Hebert’s comments.

Minnesota will be without two of its tri-captains, starting libero Paula Gentil and opposite hitter Erin Lorenzen tonight.

“It’s gonna be an adjustment,” Hebert said about playing without Gentil. “Our team relies on her to gobble up a lot of balls around the court.”

Gentil has been a steady force for the team but has battled an injury as of late. According to Hebert, Gentil’s shoulder was injured at the home tournament Sept. 5-6, and became re-injured in the Florida tournament last weekend. She is expected to miss tonight’s match, as well as the team’s competition at home this weekend.

“It’s just too sore to play with right now,” Hebert said.

While Gentil nurses her shoulder, Lorenzen’s lower back is keeping her out of tonight’s match.

Lorenzen has not been starting for Minnesota, but her absence only means one less replacement Hebert has for the libero.

Hebert said he will decide before game time who tonight’s starter at libero will be. He said it will most likely be either first-year defensive specialist Marci Peniata or junior libero Lisa Reinhart.

Peniata is third on the team in digs with 63. Reinhart has 18, but she has only played in two games. Peniata has played in 23 of the team’s 28 games. Gentil, last year’s Big Ten defensive player of the year, has 138 digs so far this season.

Despite Gentil’s absence, the Gophers will have their solid frontcourt healthy.

Junior opposite hitter Trisha Bratford and first-year middle blocker Meredith Nelson join senior tri-captain Cassie Busse to form a tough front line at the net for Minnesota.

Bratford led the team in kills last weekend with 26 and hit .500 in Friday’s match against Xavier (6-2). Nelson is coming off a career-high .571 hitting percentage against the Musketeers. She is also looking forward to her first match against Northern Iowa, an annual foe for the Gophers.

“They place a lot of emphasis on beating Minnesota,” Nelson said.

Nelson, in her first year at Minnesota, was at last year’s match as a fan. The Gophers lost that clash to Northern Iowa in four games (30-28, 30-24, 22-30, 30-16).

Northern Iowa will also have the benefit of playing a team that has a 3-5 record. The Gophers finished 32-6 last year, including only two nonconference losses – one being the Northern Iowa loss.

Heading into this year’s tilt, both Hebert and Nelson believe teamwork is an aspect that needs improvement.

“It’s just evolving team chemistry and learning to play with each other,” Nelson said. “It’s a tough position not beating a ranked opponent.”

This is true. Minnesota has lost five games – four of which came against ranked opponents. Though this list includes No. 2 Hawaii and No. 3 Florida, the Gophers were pre-ranked at sixth this year and have high expectations.

“It’s a good test for us,” Hebert said about heading into Northern Iowa without the two captains. “This is the time to see what we can do when we have injuries or lineup changes.”

The squad is set for a 7 p.m. start time tonight. Winning the match would mark its first victory against a ranked opponent this season. Otherwise, the team will have to wait until Oct. 11 for the next chance, when it travels to 24th-ranked Wisconsin.