Tourney field too much for Gophers

The defending Big Ten volleyball champions took to the courts last weekend in Honolulu, Hawaii, but the end result was far from celebratory.

The sixth-ranked Minnesota squad played in the 16th annual Hawaiian Airline Classic, but its play did not live up to the team’s billing. The Gophers lost all three of their matches – all against ranked teams.

The losses included a 30-20, 30-18, 30-18 drubbing at the hands of second-ranked Hawaii. The Gophers also failed to post wins against No. 22 Louisville and No. 13 UCLA.

Minnesota started play Friday night with an affair against host Hawaii. The Gophers started off well, taking a 14-13 lead in the first game. But things went downhill from there. The Rainbow Wahine went on a 14-4 run and took the game 30-20.

In the second game the Gophers again jumped out to an early lead, taking a 6-5 advantage. However, Hawaii once again turned things around as it made another run and came up with a 30-18 victory.

Minnesota had some problems handling Hawaii’s Kim Willoughby – one of the nation’s top-rated players. Willoughby came through for her team by amassing an impressive 10 kills in game two, finishing with 21 kills in the match.

“Willoughby is easily one of the top two players in the country,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “(Willoughby) and Aury Cruz (a 2002 first team All-American from Florida) are both players that play with the type of intensity our team needs to play with.”

The Gophers went on to lose the third game in straight sets.

On Saturday, Minnesota played its second match of the weekend, taking on No. 22 Louisville. The match was a bit more encouraging, but turned out with the same result as the first match – another Gophers loss. The Cardinals took the match 30-21, 30-24, 24-30, 30-27.

Though losing, Minnesota did see some impressive play by freshman Meredith Nelson. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker made some healthy contributions to her new team by knocking down four kills and making three blocks in game two of the match.

“Meredith was one of the bright spots in the tournament,” Hebert said. “I really liked her presence and poise in her first tournament.”

Besides Nelson’s play, the Gophers also got 29 digs out of defensive specialist Paula Gentil – a career-high for the sophomore All-American.

The third match of the weekend had Minnesota facing another difficult task in No. 13 UCLA. Minnesota suffered a three-game loss 30-27, 30-21, 30-19.

Although it was an unsuccessful beginning to Minnesota’s new season, Hebert was pleased with some aspects of his team’s performance. The seventh-year coach was happy with the play of the freshmen and believes better things are to come in the future.

“We played in a top-notch tournament this weekend and went 0-3,” Hebert said “We could’ve played in a weaker tournament and had gone 3-0, but wanted to take on some of the higher-quality teams in the country.”

The Gophers host the Nike Invitational tournament this weekend at the Sports Pavilion. The team will take on three unranked schools when it faces Kansas, Dayton and Marquette.

Minnesota’s first home match of the year is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday against the Jayhawks.