Volleyball easily sweeps past lowly Northwestern

After two dramatic wins last weekend at home and a convincing win at Iowa on Wednesday, there might be a tendency to have a letdown against a weak team.
The Minnesota volleyball team avoided that pitfall this weekend.
The Gophers dominated Northwestern on Saturday night at the Sports Pavilion, dominating the match 15-7, 15-6, 15-0.
Coach Mike Hebert said it was not hard to encourage his team to come out strong against last-place Northwestern.
“I think everyone understands that anyone in this league can jump up and play a great match,” Hebert said. “I don’t think we were overlooking anybody. In fact I think we played with a great deal of motivation tonight.”
After his team’s loss, Northwestern coach Kevin Renshler would not comment on the match.
Minnesota (13-3, 4-0) has rolled off seven wins in a row and is off to its best Big Ten start since the Gophers opened their 1989 affair with five straight wins.
Saturday’s victory put the Gophers in a tie for first place in the Big Ten with second-ranked Penn State. If Minnesota is to stay on top, Hebert said it is crucial for his team to win at home.
“You have to win your home matches,” Hebert said. “This was one of them for us. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is.”
The key to Saturday’s win was Minnesota’s strong defense. While the scores didn’t show it, the overpowering win didn’t start out easy for Minnesota. The Wildcats jumped out to an early 4-1 lead in the first game thanks to good passing. The Gophers had to adjust their blocking in order to stop the Wildcats’ attack.
“Once our block began to figure out what they were doing and became comfortable with the rhythm of their offense, our block took over the match,” Hebert said.
Minnesota out blocked Northwestern 13-5, with Charnette Fair jumping in on six of the rejections.
But the defense didn’t stop there. The Gophers out dug the Wildcats 50-30, including 14 by Yvonne Wichert.
By the third game, the Gophers defense was on fire. They literally shut down the Wildcats, not allowing one point. It was the first time Minnesota blanked an opponent since the first game of the Loyola (MD) match last September.
The defense fed the offense all match. Wichert was a key to Minnesota’s attack. She slammed home 13 kills, and Nicole Branagh pounded 17 more to lead the Gophers.
Hebert was impressed with the way the Wichert and Branagh carried Minnesota’s attack.
“Our two leftsides dominated the match tonight,” Hebert said. “They take the big swing when it’s there.”
Wichert said her play of late is reflected by how well the team is playing together.
“I feel more confident than the beginning of the season because we keep winning all the matches,” Wichert said. “The heat of the game makes you confident.”
For the second straight match, the offense was without setter Lindsey Berg who had the flu. Susan Shudlick once again stepped up to guide the Gophers.
Branagh said Minnesota was not affected by the switch at setter.
“We adjusted well,” Branagh said. “She has been playing in this system for four years. For her to jump in like that and take over is great for the team.”

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]