Gophers set to face Big Ten’s best

Sarah Mitchell

Ticket takers at the Sports Pavilion won’t be increasing admission costs this weekend for volleyball events, but maybe they should.
Three of the nation’s best volleyball teams will be in town, when No. 24 Minnesota (10-1) opens the Big Ten season Friday against No. 1 Penn State (11-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) and No. 14 Ohio State (7-3, 0-1) on Saturday.
For most of Penn State’s opponents, a match-up with the top team in the country is the game of the year. But the Lions have been making it look like just another game on the way to a national title.
Heading into Wednesday’s home match against Ohio State (7-3, 0-1 Big Ten), Penn State limited opposing teams to an average of just four points a game. Amazingly, Penn State improved on its own stellar average, demolishing the Buckeyes in three games by scores of 15-1, 15-3 and 15-3. Penn State’s bid at a perfect season is well intact.
“If Penn State plays their best, no one in the Big Ten is going to beat them,” Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert said. “But not everyone plays their best every night.”
In 20 seasons at Penn State, coach Russ Ross owns a record of 630-119. This year he has two key players in All-Americans Lauren Cacciamani and Bonnie Bremner.
Cacciamani recorded match-highs of 12 kills and seven blocks against the Buckeyes. The junior outside hitter leads Penn State this season in blocks (60) and kills (119).
Bremner also contributed to the Ohio State decimation, recording eight kills. The junior setter tops the Big Ten with a .557 attack percentage.
As if those two weren’t enough, the remainder of the Penn State team is almost as lethal as the junior duo. The Lions have outhit their opponents .371 to .029 while out-blocking their opponents 118 to 31.
Although Penn State’s overall statistics are impressive, Hebert said Minnesota might be able to exploit a mental weakness at game time. He suggested that Friday’s game might really be a match-up of Penn State versus Penn State. The No. 1 ranking is not only a place for glory, but also one for pressure.
“Teams that are as good as Penn State, they are really their own potential enemy,” Hebert said. “They’re the ones playing from the position of strength. If they don’t bring their best game and we come out hot, then all of a sudden doubt can enter their mind and it becomes their weakness.”
And if the Gophers force Penn State to become unsure of its game, the Gophers could score and upset in the opener.
“If we get a few breaks, things start to go our way, our ball is a little bit in, theirs is a little bit out, they become rattled because they are in this gym, who knows?” Hebert said. “Anything can happen.”
If things don’t fall the Gophers’ way on Friday, Saturday’s Ohio State game becomes more important as Minnesota doesn’t want a 0-2 conference start.
Having Friday night off, the Buckeyes have rest on their side. Ohio State also has the series lead in their favor, 23-11, but Buckeye pride might have fallen a few notches after the Penn State match.
In his 17th season, Ohio State’s head coach Jim Stone has accumulated a record of 317-151.
“If you look at their record over the past 10 years, next to Penn State they have the best win-loss record in the Big Ten,” Hebert said. “I’ve been in this league for a long time and Ohio State is a team that you know is automatically going to be good.”
Despite the Penn State match, the Buckeyes do have a strong season outlook. Ranked No. 14 in the nation, the Ohio State team features junior outside hitter Rosie Snow and last season’s Big Ten Rookie of the Year Dana Steans.
Snow averaged 4.20 kills per game before the Penn State fiasco, while Steans was hitting .379 with 85 kills.
If Minnesota outside hitter Nicole Branagh, who ranks second in the Big Ten with 5.29 kills per game, can improve on her average, the Gophers could provide a counterattack. Factor in freshman setter Lindsey Berg’s jump serve — which has ripped through the Big Ten for 25 service aces — and the ranking system might be made worthless.
“We have nothing to lose, really,” Berg said. “Anyone can win the game. I don’t think the rankings really matter. They don’t matter to me at all.”
And the rest of the Gopher team agrees with the up-for-grabs concept.
“We’re intending to go into the matches with the idea of winning,” Hebert said. “That’s why they play them.”