pikers ready for Big Ten season challenge

by Brian Stensaas

With last weekend’s ho-hum tournament sweep, Minnesota volleyball is off to its longest winning streak in 22 years. The Gophers finished the non-confernce portion of their schedule unscathed at 11-0 for the first time since switching over to the NCAA in 1978. They’re also one of only seven teams left undefeated in Division I.
They’ve won three straight tournaments, are leading the Big Ten in hitting percentage and have the opportunity to break the all-time school record of 14 straight victories.
Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, they are ranked No. 9 in the country.
It would seem hard for this team to improve. But coach Mike Hebert doesn’t buy into the hype.
The Gophers have the elements for success. It remains to be seen whether the team have enough to go the distance.
“We’re a bona fide contender for the (Big Ten) championship,” Hebert said. “Now it is a matter of staying injury-free. We’re just not deep enough to withstand any kind of injury to a top player and still maintain the level of play we’re at.”
After Minnesota breezed past Seton Hall in the first two games Saturday afternoon, Hebert opted to go without starters Nicole Branagh, Lindsey Berg, Charnette Fair or Stephanie Hagen for the third.
Instead, the Gophers featured five reserves in the game. Minnesota dropped the frame 15-11, getting no closer than two points behind the Pirates.
It was just the second game Minnesota has dropped on the season, and the Gophers quickly rebounded to take the fourth game and the match.
“We couldn’t receive the ball, and [losses are] what can happen,” Hebert said. “The passers got frozen out there and couldn’t shake the nerves. Once you lose your confidence, you go in streaks and just start getting in the way of the ball.”
Still, Hebert said three freshmen (Erin Lorenzen, Cassie Busse and Bethany Brafford) are candidates to start this weekend on Minnesota’s right side – the only position Hebert listed as open for contention.
Overall passing is another concern. Hebert praised Minnesota’s passing in the opening matches of the season, but was not impressed after last weekend’s home opener.
“If you can’t pass the ball, you can’t play,” Hebert said. “Last weekend, we didn’t do that very well.
Minnesota will look to open Big Ten play with positive passing beginning Friday against Purdue (8-4) and following up Saturday against Illinois (9-2).
Both matches start at 7 p.m. at the Sports Pavilion.
Big Ten Beginnings
As the Big Ten season commences this weekend, the Nittany Lions remain the pick of the litter. Penn State is 11-1, with its only loss coming in the opening weekend to then-top-ranked UCLA.
Penn State, the defending NCAA champion, is off to a mirror start from a year ago when it lost the opening weekend and never looked back en route to a national championship.
Along with the Gophers and the Lions, Ohio State is also off to a strong start. The Buckeyes have won 10 straight, but are a long way from the school record of 25 straight wins.
Leading ladies
In addition to their Big Ten lead in team hitting percentage, two Gophers are leading individual categories.
Branagh is leading the conference in kills with 4.9 per game while Hagen is atop the list in blocks with 1.74 a game.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected].