Spikers roll for four more wins

Ben Goessling

When Minnesota’s volleyball team returns to the Sports Pavilion for this weekend’s Diet Coke Classic, fans will see a drastically different team than the one that finished a surprising second at the prestigious State Farm Volleyball Classic on Aug. 23-24.

A sweep of then eighth-ranked Pepperdine and a strong showing against defending national champion Stanford sent the youthful Gophers — picked sixth in the Big Ten by conference coaches — to last weekend’s Florida Atlantic Classic riding a tidal wave of momentum.

But Minnesota suffered a major setback when sophomore middle blocker Maggie Freiborg was lost for the season after tearing her right anterior cruciate ligament in the first game of the Pepperdine match.

“We were already thin at middle blocker, so we couldn’t really afford this,” coach Mike Hebert said last week. “We’ll just have to get creative with our lineups.”

Hebert said outside hitter Erin Martin would see time at middle blocker and opposite hitter Erin Lorenzen will move into the starting lineup.

Lorenzen fills Big Ten Player of the Week Cassie Busse’s spot while Busse moves to the left side to give the Gophers defensive stability.

The moves worked for the Gophers last weekend, as the team went 4-0 en route to winning the Florida Atlantic Classic.

Freshman Jessica Byrnes saw the most action at middle blocker last weekend and hit .909 in a three-game victory over Youngstown State on Saturday.

But the Gophers play four more matches against top 25 teams in the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s preseason poll before the end of September.

Which means Byrnes faces a steep learning curve.

“She’s not quite the blocker Maggie is,” Hebert said. “She has to get good quick.”

Martin played well in her enhanced role, highlighted by 16 kills and a .440 attack percentage in a three-game sweep of North Carolina State. She is currently second on the team in kills and third in blocks.

Growing up quickly

Byrnes displayed maturity beyond her years after stepping in for Freiborg against Pepperdine, but the 18-year-old couldn’t help acting like a kid after Minnesota’s huge upset.

“Athena (fellow freshman Mallakis) and I didn’t stop screaming the whole way home after we beat Pepperdine,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes and the rest of the Gophers got a dose of reality the next night in a loss to Stanford, but Hebert said his team — which features only one senior and four juniors — will be better prepared for the rest of its schedule after facing the defending national champions.

“We were a little tight against Stanford,” Hebert said. “The players were a little star-struck and it hurt us in the first game, but they won’t be in awe of anybody else this year.”

Hebert voiced his approval of the Gophers’ low profile in the preseason, but now says the team is ready to shed its anonymity. Sophomore setter Lindsey Vander Well agrees.

“We’ve got a little bit of a target on our backs now, but we’ll go into big matches with a different mentality,” she said. “People will think of us highly, and we have to play our best every night.”

The Diet Coke Classic features UCLA and Northern Iowa, the 11th- and 14th-ranked teams in the AVCA’s preseason poll, but the Gophers’ early success should put them in the rankings when the next poll is released Tuesday.

“The kids were feeling a little disrespected, and to be able to answer that on the court is gratifying,” Hebert said. “It changes how people perceive us, and hopefully, it gives us a little notoriety.”

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]