Solid blocking has been one key to success for U’s volleyball team

Jeff Barthel

An old sports cliche is that defense wins championships.

With volleyball, though, kills are arguably the most exciting things to watch. However, these kills have to be defended in some way.

“Our blocking has improved consistently since the first part of the year,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “The coaching staff, in particular Brian Heffernan, has developed tactical blocking schemes.”

Hebert might be right. Although offense is needed, defense is important.

Though there are no official rankings for overall team defense in volleyball, there are digging and blocking statistics.

This season, the 20th-ranked Gophers (17-7, 10-2 Big Ten) and their blocking corps are doing well at deflecting opponent kill attempts.

As a team, Minnesota has compiled 246 total blocks – ranking fourth among its Big Ten competition.

The team’s leader in blocks is 6-foot-3-inch freshman Meredith Nelson.

“It’s been on and off for a while,” Nelson said of her blocking efforts this season. “My blocking is not as good as it was, but the team’s defense picks me up for my lack of blocks.”

Nelson amassed 10 blocks twice this season, at No. 22 Wisconsin and No. 16 Penn State.

She’s slowed down a bit – recording just three blocks against Wisconsin at home Friday – but not much overall.

The rookie middle blocker has 110 blocks on the season. The statistic is good enough to rank in the top 10 among Big Ten competition.

The upstart freshman does not take her abilities for granted.

“Nothing is set in stone,” Nelson said of the playing time she’s earned this season. “It’s going to depend on our performances in practice.”

Athena Mallakis is another freshman middle blocker.

Nelson said she has been impressed with Mallakis’ practices of late.

“Athena had her leg injury and so she’s fighting real hard to get into some games,” Nelson said.

Mallakis has started as middle blocker in both of her team’s last matches. The starts come after making only bench appearances beforehand.

“I’ve tried my hardest in practice,” Mallakis said.

Mallakis shares time with Nelson and sophomore Jessica Byrnes.

Byrnes has had success this season – contributing 51 blocks – but Mallakis is poised to compete for more playing time.

“It’s been really exciting,” Mallakis said. “In the Wisconsin match, I didn’t know I was going to be starting until three hours before the game.”

In her start, she deflected Badger kill attempts four times. The Gophers out-blocked Wisconsin 12-5 on the night.

On the horizon is Illinois, though, and an Illini player with a 6-foot-5-inch frame.

Lisa Argabright is not only tall; she also boasts some excellent blocking skills – the Illini middle blocker has 107 blocks.

Argabright’s block total is good enough for fourth in the Big Ten.

Minnesota’s Nelson is a few blocks ahead, ranking third in the conference.