Second half of Big Ten play begins

Minnesota will host unranked Northwestern and Illinois.

by Megan Ryan

The Gophers volleyball team has played every Big Ten team other than Indiana. Now it’s poised to start the process all over again.

Minnesota began its conference season away against Northwestern and Illinois a month ago. This weekend, the Gophers will host the Wildcats on Friday at the Sports Pavilion and the Illini on Sunday at Williams Arena.

The Gophers are 8-2 in the conference so far with its only losses coming to No. 1 Penn State and No. 4 Nebraska.

Head coach Hugh McCutcheon said the team has done good work so far, but the real challenge lies ahead.

Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said the Gophers have had a solid season so far in terms of team chemistry.

“Our team’s getting along,” Dixon said. “There hasn’t been any issues or anything. So that’s always good that it’s mellowed out.”

The No. 10 Gophers could also have a mellow weekend of matches. Both Northwestern and Illinois are currently unranked. The Wildcats are 3-7 in the Big Ten, while the Illini are only slightly better at 4-6.

But McCutcheon said the opponents’ lackluster first half of Big Ten play may fuel them to improve in the last half.

“You’re going to find that teams are fighting for their lives in conference play because their NCAA bid is at stake,” McCutcheon said. “And those that have already qualified but maybe aren’t in contention for the conference championship … maybe they’re holding themselves for the end of the season.

“We’re not going to get caught into any of that,” McCutcheon said.

Senior outside hitter Katherine Harms said neither team has gotten weaker since its last meeting with the Gophers.

Minnesota swept Illinois in three sets and beat Northwestern in four sets after losing the first.

“When we played Northwestern, we started off really poorly,” Dixon said. “We just need to remember that, ‘Hey, this team is good. They can beat us.’”

Dixon said her team didn’t underestimate Northwestern — it just needs to start off stronger and avoid waiting an entire set before pulling together.

McCutcheon said he believes his team has improved on its passing and serving, but its attack has stalled a bit.

“Defenses are keying on a few players a little bit differently than they were,” McCutcheon said. “So we’re learning to develop some range.”

He said some players — both starters and those coming off the bench — have already shown a more offensive mindset. Minnesota has used a similar starting lineup for every match in the conference season, but a shakeup may be in order.

“We’re not a tough lock to pick,” McCutcheon said. “We’re pretty basic — which is, I think, the way you want to be.”

McCutcheon also said he would rather his team master four or five plays than try to manage 20 at a time.

Harms said the Gophers are at a good point in the season to evaluate their progress.

“[The] halfway point is just a great marker to signify where you are in the season,” Harms said. “And I think our team has done a really good job of constantly improving throughout the whole season.”

Dixon also said she wants the team to keep improving as the postseason approaches in hopes of an NCAA championship “someday.”

“It’s not going to stop here,” Dixon said. “We’re going to keep on going and hopefully finish out strong.”