Conference-leading Gophers gear up for second half of race to Big Ten Championships

by Kent Erdahl

With half of the Big Ten volleyball season behind them, the two conference leaders agree on one thing – the only certainty is uncertainty.

Despite a combined record of 39-3 and 18-2 in the conference, co-leaders Minnesota and Ohio State are not taking anything for granted.

“I’m glad we’re in first place right now,” Ohio State coach Jim Stone said. “But I don’t think any Big Ten coach would be surprised to see any team beaten on any given night.”

Coaches are prone to preach about tough conference schedules. But this season, the competition in the Big Ten can easily be seen by comparing national and conference measuring sticks.

Currently, three Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 10 in the USA Today/CSTV Top 25 Coaches Poll. Minnesota and Ohio State are Nos. 2 and 7, respectively, but it’s the other top team that illustrates how tough the conference is.

Penn State, which currently sits third in the conference at 8-2, sits above Ohio State nationally at No. 6.

The other Big Ten representative in the poll – No. 21 Illinois – is sixth in the conference and barely above .500 (6-4).

All of the standings make it hard to see which team will emerge after half of the conference season, but there is little doubt there will be a single champion in the end.

This is because the Big Ten volleyball season is a double round robin, guaranteeing each team plays every other team twice.

“You can’t get up too high when you win or too down when you lose, because you know you’ll see everyone twice,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “(The double round robin) is the best indicator of a true champion in all of the Big Ten sports.”

The format of the schedule ensures teams such as Penn State (17-2), Wisconsin (13-5), Michigan (15-6) and Illinois (14-5) all have legitimate shots at the Big Ten title.

Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said he thinks all of those teams, along with Ohio State, have the potential to win the conference. But the Gophers seem to have the inside track, because they face both Penn State and Ohio State at home.

The Lions might have the toughest schedule left. They must travel to Minnesota and Ohio State after falling to both on their home floor.

“It’s something that’s obviously going to hurt us down the road,” Rose said. “There are no moral victories in saying you lost two five-game matches.”

Despite Minnesota’s apparent advantage, Hebert said facing Penn State and Ohio State at home doesn’t make the Gophers the title favorite.

But with matches against three of the four top teams in the conference – Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State – in the next two weeks, Minnesota looks to have a quick glimpse at its Big Ten fate.

“In that time, we’ll find out a lot about our chances,” Hebert said. “I kind of like that, because either we’ll be in good shape or we’ll need some help. At least we’ll know.”