Regular season ends on the road

by Mark Heise

With just two matches remaining and the NCAA Tournament selections right around the corner, the Minnesota volleyball team finds itself in a good spot.

“I feel really good about our team,” coach Mike Hebert said. “We’ve achieved some of the consistency that we were yearning for, and we’ve shown maturity on the court as well. This team has so many working parts; it makes it really easy to put a lineup out there.”

Hebert’s 10th-ranked Gophers are on the road for their final two matches, taking on 22nd-ranked Purdue at 6 p.m. Friday before traveling to Indiana for another 6 p.m. match.

Wins over both of these teams in home matches earlier this season, combined with Minnesota’s 15-3 conference record and overall quality play as of late, have given the Gophers plenty of confidence heading into their final regular-season matches.

“It’s been a great season for us so far; we’ve really been playing well together this year,” freshman defensive specialist Christine Tan said. “This weekend is our chance to finish strong and try to set the tone for the NCAA Tournament, and I think if we stay focused, we have a good chance to do that.”

Minnesota (21-7 overall, 15-3) faces stiff competition Friday, as the Boilermakers boast a 10-3 record at home this season.

Purdue (21-8, 11-7) was ranked as high as ninth earlier this season, but hit a two-week slide early in the month, going 0-4 from Nov. 3 to Nov. 11, nearly falling out of the rankings.

But the Boilermakers recovered with wins on the road, topping Illinois and Northwestern last weekend, and could be looking to make one last push for position heading into the postseason.

Sophomore setter Rachel Hartmann said Friday’s match could present a challenge and Minnesota’s four-game upset over Purdue earlier in the season could be used as motivation for the Boilermakers.

“Purdue’s probably going to be pretty pumped to play us, so it should be a great game,” she said. “But I think the match is more about us controlling what we’re supposed to do than worrying about what they might do.”

Heading into Saturday, Indiana should not present as much of a challenge as the Boilermakers will.

Riding a 17-match losing streak – with 12 of those losses coming in three games – the Hoosiers have proven to be no threat at all for any ranked team this season.

Hebert wouldn’t guarantee a victory, but expressed plenty of confidence in his team at Indiana.

“It’s a match we should win, and we have all the confidence in the world that we will win,” he said. “The only caveat is that anything’s possible. A 15-3 team should beat the 1-17 team, and I’m not going to hide it. There’s no way around that.”

Indiana’s one claim to legitimacy this season was its win over Michigan on the road in its first conference match of the season. The Hoosiers (10-20, 1-17) were out-hit .207-.136, but recorded 23 blocks to upset the Wolverines in five games.

Michigan is one of just two Big Ten opponents to defeat Minnesota this season.

This sole win in conference play may be the reason Hartmann stressed caution when talking about Indiana.

“I think we’ve learned not to look past teams, especially since losing to Michigan,” she said. “So we aren’t going to overlook them, but I think with the way we’ve been playing, we’re pretty confident with our ability to end the season on a good note.”

Peniata awarded again

With 6.62 digs per game over the past week, senior libero Malama Peniata received the Big Ten Defensive Volleyball Player of the Week award for the third time this season.

Peniata is the only player to receive the award multiple times this season and is the third player in Big Ten history to win the honor three or more times.