It has been a long month for the No. 21 Minnesota volleyball team.
After an eight game road stretch the Gophers (8-4, 2-2 Big Ten) finally return to the Sports Pavilion for their first home match exactly one month to the day.
Minnesota coach Mike Hebert, in his sixth year as Gophers coach, seemed upbeat and was in a joking mood when asked about returning home.
“(Sports information Director Becky Bohm) gave us maps to the Pavilion,” Hebert said.
Minnesota hosted Marquette on Sept. 5th, its only home match of the season. The Diet Coke Classic which was to be held at the Pavilion from Sept. 14-15th was cancelled due to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11th.
This weekend, the Gophers play host to Indiana on Friday and Illinois on Saturday.
The road-weary players are eager to return to the Pavilion.
“It is going to be great to have a home match,” senior Lindsey Berg said. “Hopefully we can come home, play well, get our crowd involved and regain some confidence.”
“I think it will definitely help us a lot,” freshman Erin Martin said. “Being there in our gym, with our fans, it will be great.”
Minnesota is in need of a confidence boost after losing tilts with unranked Michigan State and Michigan last weekend.
Out-blocked 13-5 by the Spartans and out-dug 50-33 by the Wolverines, defense remains a concern for Hebert. While the coach jokes with the media, during practice Hebert is all business.
For the past two weeks, the Gophers have exhausted most of their energy in practice on improving their defense.
“We have been practicing a lot of defense,” defensive specialist Lisa Axel said. “We are trying to get a lot more looks at swings and just get a lot more comfortable. I think we have a long way to go to get better. It’s definitely an area we can improve in, and I think we can with practice.”
Indiana (3-8, 0-4) comes to town Friday as the first test for the Gophers’ defense.
It may be just what the doctor ordered. Minnesota has dominated the Hoosiers recently, winning 15 of the last 19 matches – and Indiana comes in hitting .189 as a team.
Saturday’s opponent, Illinois (7-4, 1-3), should be a stiffer test for the Gophers. The Illini feature three players with over 100 kills – outside hitters Shadia Haddad and Lisa Arganbright, and middle blocker Lydia Gard.
“They both look to me to be carbon copies of Michigan and Michigan State,” Hebert said. “Illinois is able to put out a pretty tall team. Their thing is blocking and we are going to have to cope with that.
“Indiana seems like a better ball-control team and more balanced in their attack and their blocking.”
Now able to find their way to the Pavilion, the Gophers look forward to the game experience which was in short supply after the cancelation of four matches last month.
“I think we really got hurt by the cancellations, maybe more than most Big Ten teams,” Hebert said. “I think we had the least number of starters returning. For us to get ready for the Big Ten, we missed four really key matches that we had significant plans for. That would have been a great situation for us.”
Brian Hall covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]