Gophers host one at Pav, one at Barn

Minnesota hosts No. 5 Nebraska in its annual match at Williams Arena.

by Charlie Armitz

It hasnâÄôt been a typical season for the Gophers volleyball team.

Ranked No. 14, Minnesota is where many expected it to be after an offseason full of adjustments.

Yet its path to get there âÄî two straight-set wins over No. 4 Texas, two straight-set losses at Ohio State and Penn State, a dramatic comeback win against Michigan and a slew of five-set matches âÄî has been anything but expected.

Amid all the chaos, another unusual statistic stands out: The Gophers have played only four of their 15 matches at home.

That will change this weekend, however, when Minnesota hosts Iowa and Nebraska.

The Gophers play the unranked Hawkeyes on Friday at the Sports Pavilion. Iowa (11-8, 1-5 Big Ten) has lost its last 31 matches against Minnesota dating back to Nov. 25, 1995.

The last time the Hawkeyes took a set off the Gophers was Nov. 26, 2008.

Big Ten newcomer Nebraska, which Minnesota plays Saturday night at Williams Arena, won the last match between the two teams on Aug. 29, 2009.

The fifth-ranked Huskers (13-1 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) are the only undefeated team in the Big Ten besides top-ranked Illinois.

A win against Nebraska would put the Gophers (10-5 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) back in the discussion for a conference title. A loss might ruin their chances for good.

But Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush said the team isnâÄôt doing anything special to prepare for the Huskers.

âÄúItâÄôs another good conference match against another good Big Ten team,âÄù she said. âÄú[WeâÄôre preparing] just like any other conference match.âÄù

One key difference in facing Nebraska is the venue âÄî the Gophers will play at Williams Arena for the only time in 2011, where a larger crowd doesnâÄôt always guarantee a greater home-court advantage.

âÄúWilliams is more of a neutral court,âÄù Bush said. âÄúBut our players love playing here once every year. We pack in the fans for this, and it has its own atmosphere and energy about it.âÄù

Minnesota has averaged 8,470 fans at Williams Arena since 2004, when the Gophers began playing there annually. They have won five of their seven matches there, but have never defeated a team ranked higher than them.

FridayâÄôs match against the Hawkeyes wonâÄôt provide as much excitement as playing a top-tier opponent in front of 5,000-plus fans.

But the Gophers arenâÄôt taking it lightly.

âÄúTheyâÄôre a good team, and any team can come in and play hard,âÄù senior Ariana Filho said of Iowa. âÄúI wouldnâÄôt say weâÄôre expecting to beat them.

âÄúBefore we can even think or worry about Nebraska, weâÄôve got Iowa to take care of.âÄù

Filho and senior teammate Hailey Cowles both said the primary focus this week is for Minnesota to remain focused on its own play âÄî especially late in sets, when its play has been most unpredictable.

âÄúWeâÄôve been working in practice on being consistent and closing out sets,âÄù Cowles said. âÄúWeâÄôre just keeping perspective on the season and not looking ahead or looking behind.âÄù

The GophersâÄô late-set efficiency seemed to change dramatically after they broke an eight-set losing streak Friday at Michigan.

Minnesota nearly blew a 22-15 lead in the third set but held on to win 25-23 and didnâÄôt look back.

The Gophers hit .714 in the fifth set, which they won 15-10, and had little trouble finishing off the host Wolverines.

In SaturdayâÄôs 25-22, 25-22, 27-25 sweep of Michigan State, they played the Spartans even throughout, but won the match with sharp late-set execution.

âÄúThe team stayed confident and pretty even-keeled throughout the whole situation,âÄù Cowles said. âÄúPractice stayed the same, [and] team chemistry is always the same with this team.

âÄúI think every team is going to go through struggles and we just hit ours a little bit earlier.âÄù