Volleyball opens Big Ten play at Indiana, Purdue

Jeff Barthel

Minnesota sports fans are in a frenzy these days, largely due to the Twins winning their second-straight AL Central baseball title.

But this weekend, another Minnesota sports team will begin its quest for back-to-back titles.

The defending Big Ten champion Minnesota volleyball team heads to Indiana to open up conference play. The Gophers take on the Hoosiers at 7 p.m. Friday before traveling to Purdue on Saturday for a tilt with the Boilermakers.

“The Big Ten is always competitive,” coach Mike Hebert said. “We know we have a lot to work on.”

Hebert enters this weekend having won all seven of Minnesota’s road Big Ten openers during his tenure as head coach at Minnesota.

In order to make it eight, he will look to his all-Americans to lead the way.

“Cassie (Busse) has been invaluable to this team,” Hebert said. “She is a team leader both on and off the court.”

The Gophers have a six-match winning streak against the Hoosiers, and have an eight-match winning streak against Purdue.

Busse, a senior captain, finished fifth in the Big Ten in kills last season and comes into conference play following a commendable nonconference season. She has amassed 171 kills so far this season but knows the Big Ten is highly competitive.

“The Big Ten is always something you look forward to,” Busse said.

Busse also owns a team-high .306 hitting percentage this season. Much of this is due to the strong play of teammate Lindsey Taatjes.

The team’s starting setter, Taatjes had an impressive nonconference season as well. The junior captain is key in passing to her teammates with sets. Taatjes, who set the single season team record in assists last year with 1,734, has registered 511 assists so far this season.

“I like having the blocker on the other side (of the net),” Taatjes said. “You can fake them out and get them to move wrong.”

Taatjes and Busse are having solid seasons, but questions remain about the new additions to the team.

Freshman Meredith Nelson leads a group of first-year players that make up the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the nation on www.prepvolleyball.com’s list.

Other than Busse, Taatjes and Nelson, the Gophers will return junior outside hitters Trisha Bratford and Erin Martin.

The team also features libero Paula Gentil – the team’s most valuable defensive weapon.

Gentil was 2002 Big Ten defensive player of the year. She looks to be maintaining good pace to compete for that honor again. The junior from Brazil has 192 digs so far this season. Her 5.05 digs per game are good for sixth in the nation.

“She dives, she digs, she’s flying all over the court,” Hebert said. “Paula is quite possibly the best player on the team.”

Last year Minnesota opened Big Ten play with an upset of then-No. 14 Wisconsin. The Badgers are 8-3 so far this season, but leading the way in the conference is Penn State.

The Lions are 11-1 this season and 12th in the nation.