Gophers hit stride in season

Minnesota has won 14 matches in a row.

Emily Polglaze

The Gophers have gone from being unranked to one of the best teams in the nation in just three months’ time.

The No. 3 Gophers have lost just once in conference play, and defeated former No. 1 Penn State in a 3-0 sweep on Saturday. It was the team’s 14th straight match victory in a row.

“Beating them gave us a lot of confidence,” junior middle blocker Hannah Tapp said. “We have now earned the right to be proud and confident every time we step on the floor.”

The Gophers have continued to win by harnessing a number of tactics, including efficiency on the attack.

Minnesota has out-hit its opponents .256 to .170 this season after hitting .232 last year, while its opponents hit .188.

The Gophers have also been strong on the serve all season.

The team is still 11 aces shy of its total last year, but it’s cut down on its service errors. Minnesota has committed 122 this season after making 188 last year.

Head coach Hugh McCutcheon said the changes have happened thanks to the work ethic of his players.

“It’s the athletes, it’s the way they work and the way they work together,” McCutcheon said. “They come to work every day and try to get a little bit better. It’s the commitment to marginal gains and the small, incremental improvement that has really paid dividends for us.”

McCutcheon also said his team has found an impressive level of consistency that showed in Saturday’s match against Penn State.

Minnesota’s first meeting with Penn State in September was an extra-set loss on the road that required the Gophers to battle back after losing the first two sets.

Minnesota hasn’t lost a match since, and has only dropped nine of 51 sets in that time.

Penn State looked like a strong contender to end that streak on Saturday, and a loss for Minnesota would have dropped them out of first place in the Big Ten.

The Gophers were in control almost the entire match, though, and took down the Nittany Lions in straight sets.

“We came out with the mentality that we were going to play hard, it didn’t matter if it was going to take three sets or five,” senior captain Daly Santana said Saturday. “We were going to compete all night, and how consistent we were really gave us an edge.”

The victory moved the Gophers up one spot in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll and kept the team ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Rating Percentage Index.

The RPI helps determine a team’s postseason standing, and with four matches to play, the Gophers are in a comfortable position after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998 last year.

“Beating [Penn State] was nice because it set us up for all the things we want to achieve, especially postseason-wise,” Hannah Tapp said. “Our plan was always to be good in December; we wanted to be the best we could be in December.”