Heading into the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota’s volleyball team has been met with a challenge.
The eighth-seeded Gophers kick off the tournament against a Siena team at 5 p.m. in Albany, NY.
And, as they try to advance, one quote from the previous week should be on their minds – the idea passed along from Siena head coach Garvey Pierre.
“As far as our chances for beating Minnesota – it’s the NCAA Tournament – we will win if we come out and play Siena volleyball,” he said.
The thought could add fuel to the fire, although senior outside hitter Meghan Cumpston tried to take a more diplomatic approach.
“Well, if that’s the case, I think the exact same thing,” she said. “If we play Minnesota volleyball, I think we’re going to be OK too, so I guess whichever way it goes, it goes.”
Without a win against a ranked opponent over the course of the season, the Saints might be praying for a miracle.
Siena (22-12 overall, 15-3 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) boasts a current seven-match win streak, and is led by 5-foot-9-inch freshman middle blocker Burgandy McCurty.
McCurty leads the team with a .381 hit percentage and .83 blocks per game. She also averages 3.26 kills per game.
Minnesota (23-7, 17-3 Big Ten) will counter with 6-foot-3-inch middle blockers Meredith Nelson and Jessy Jones, who have combined for 6.26 kills and 2.24 blocks per game.
Even with this advantage, coach Mike Hebert was cautious when talking about the Siena matchup.
“The path to the regional finals is littered with seeded teams who didn’t take their opponents seriously and we won’t be one of those teams,” he said. “We’re going to prepare for them just like we’d prepare for anybody else. We will not take anything lightly.”
The Saints might have one advantage over the Gophers, however, as the New York team does not need a day’s worth of travel. Minnesota’s club was on the move instead, missing another day of class to add pressure on the student athletes.
Hebert admitted that he had hoped to host the first two rounds, which would have meant less stress for his players but said it still shouldn’t become a problem.
“At this point, having to miss three days of classes just before finals start is a bit difficult,” Hebert said. “But I think they’re accustomed this sort of thing, so I’d say right now we’re as comfortable as we’re going to be.”
Should the Gophers find a way past Siena, their next match would be against either Albany or St. John’s, two more New York teams.
St. John’s has the upper hand in the matchup, out-hitting its opponents by nearly 100 points. The Red Storm’s biggest weakness would be their blocking, and the hole could allow for an Albany upset.
Neither Albany nor St. John’s won against a ranked team this season, losing a combined three matches, all in three-game sets.
On the Gainesville, Fla. side of the bracket, ninth-seeded Florida is expected to reach the regional semifinals but could face a challenge in the second round against Arizona State.
With 13 matches against ranked competition, the Sun Devils put up quality fights against South California, Duke and Purdue, losing all in five games.
Florida, meanwhile, boasts a 28-2 record but has only played against five ranked opponents. The Gators are still the well-deserved favorites, averaging 3.4 blocks per game – ninth-best in the nation – but Arizona State could be a surprise.
Should Florida and Minnesota face off in the regional semifinals, the Gophers would find themselves on the Gators’ home court. Even so, Hebert speculated Florida would not hold any sort of home-court advantage.
“We’ve had so many big matches in tough environments, winning at Wisconsin and Purdue and playing right down to the wire with Penn State,” he said. “I think that this experience will give us, if not an advantage, at least a level of confidence that matches what Florida will have by playing at home.”
Confidence and expectations will be running high throughout the next few weeks, but for the senior group of Cumpston, Nelson, Kelly Bowman and Malama Peniata, an added set of expectations is there for their final collegiate matches.
Peniata expressed her hopes for the tournament, including another shot at No. 1 Nebraska, a team the Gophers lost to early in the season with Peniata still serving a suspension.
“I was kind of bummed that I missed that tournament earlier this season, and I’d love for us to get another chance with them,” she said. “But as long as we leave it all out on the court and know that we gave everything we had, I think we’ll be OK with whatever happens in the tournament.”
Four Gophers honored
Bowman, Nelson and Peniata all received First-Team All-Big Ten honors this weekend, and junior Jessy Jones was Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. It was the first time Minnesota had four players awarded since 1987.
Bowman receives the award for the second time in her career, and Nelson was honored for a second consecutive season.
Peniata was also named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, winning both awards for the first time in her career. It was the first conference award for Jones.