Postseason slipping away for volleyball

by Sarah Mitchell

Following last weekend’s home split, Gophers women’s volleyball coach Mike Hebert speculated his team needed to win at least half of its six remaining matches to be invited to post-season play.
If Hebert’s intuition is right, the 25th-ranked Gophers (16-11 overall, 6-10 in the Big Ten) are sliding out of NCAA tournament consideration. The Gophers dropped two road matches over the weekend, to Ohio State and No. 2 Penn State, placing the word urgency firmly in Minnesota’s vocabulary.
“I think we know we have to win these matches,” freshman middle blocker Stephanie Hagen said. “We believe we can do it, that’s for sure.”
With four matches left on the schedule, Minnesota faces a tough task. Two of those matches are away, making the Gophers hopes of post-season action even more unrealistic. Minnesota has battled road anxiety all season, struggling to a 1-7 road record.
“In the end you keep practicing,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. “You’d like to have players perform in a mature way on the road, but how do you practice that at home?”
Penn State’s attack game, known to be stacked with physical hitters, damaged Minne-sota on Saturday by scores of 15-7, 15-5 and 15-10. Heading into the third game, the Lions (26-0, 16-0) were out-hitting the Gophers .326 to -.015.
Minnesota pulled it together in the third game, rallying to decrease the deficit to 11-10. But Penn State remained unrattled, claiming the game and the match.
“Penn State is kind of relentless,” Hagen said. “They get down, but they don’t go out.”
Gophers’ senior outside hitter Jill McDonell provided some light for Hebert. Helping out freshman outside hitter Yvonne Wichert, who has been suffering back pains, McDonell totaled a .400 attack percentage and six digs in the losing effort.
“Jill came in and played pretty confident,” Hebert said. “By definition, that’s the best I’ve seen her at the outside hitter position.”
McDonell was not the lone positive. The Gophers took a loss, but Hebert said that was not the only thing gained.
“Against Penn State we got our character back,” Hebert said. “We played with some poise.”
Minnesota lacked composure on Friday. The unranked Buckeyes (13-12, 6-10) defeated Minnesota by scores of 15-11, 15-11 and 15-8.
Despite losing two starters to injury, Ohio State finally patched together a solid starting lineup.
“I heard (the Buckeyes coaches) talking after the match and they said that’s the best they’ve played,” Hebert said. “Maybe it’s our bad luck or just us contributing to their win.”
So either Minnesota needs an exorcist, or just has to stop being generous. Whatever it takes, Minnesota must find away to stop the downward slide before the NCAA scratches the Gophers from the increasingly shorter list of contenders.
The Gophers can still redeem themselves this weekend when they head out on their last road trip, competing at Indiana on Friday and Northwestern on Saturday. But even if Minnesota fails to make the tournament, Hebert said he can’t label the season as a failure.
“I didn’t have any expectations. This is a new team and I didn’t know what to expect,” Hebert said. “For nine consecutive weeks this was a nationally ranked team, so it’s hard to talk about this season as disappointing.”