Big Ten giants come to town for huge series

Kent Erdahl

Minnesota can easily catch a glimpse of its Big Ten fate at home this weekend without any need for a crystal ball.

That’s because the Gophers will complete their season series with conference-leading Ohio State and second-place Penn State at the Sports Pavilion.

Minnesota (21-3, 10-2 Big Ten) plays the Nittany Lions at 7 p.m. Friday and the Buckeyes at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Despite having three weeks and six teams left to play in the conference, a sweep of both schools would put Minnesota back in control of the conference.

Any loss, however, would jeopardize the team’s fate come the end of the season.

After splitting the season series with Wisconsin last weekend, No. 5 Minnesota will likely need a win over No. 7 Ohio State (21-1, 11-1) to stay in the Big Ten race.

The Gophers, who lost to the Buckeyes on Oct. 1 Columbus, Ohio can hardly afford another loss Saturday night. But first they’ll have to try to sweep the year’s matches against the No. 6 Lions (19-2, 10-2) on Friday.

Although they’ll be playing at home, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said it’s hard to tilt the matches in favor of the Gophers in light of the way all the teams can prepare.

While Minnesota faces both of its strongest Big Ten opponents on the same weekend, Iowa, the Gophers’ travel partner ranks last in the conference, isn’t exactly drawing attention away from Minnesota as the Buckeyes and Lions prepare.

“I think we stand at a distinct disadvantage because we have to prepare for two top-10 teams,” Hebert said. “Those two teams only have to prepare for us, because I would imagine the time they spend preparing for Iowa is significantly less.”

Another card stacked in the opposition’s deck is the difference in the style of play of two teams.

Penn State relies on solid defense and passing, and the Lions spread the ball around to an array of attackers.

Ohio State, meanwhile, has a one-dimensional attack that revolves around Stacey Gordon, who is a strong candidate for NCAA player of the year.

In Minnesota’s loss to the Buckeyes, Gordon tallied 36 kills and a .368 hitting percentage.

“She’s always having a great night, and sometimes she has extraordinary nights where you just have to shake your head,” Hebert said. “After the night she had against us in Columbus, we just looked at each other and asked, ‘What do you do?’ “

Gordon’s likely impact made her a focus at practice this week. But, on Tuesday, players said they didn’t know how they would prepare.

“I’m not really sure who will be playing her in practice,” outside hitter Erin Martin said. “It might be the hitting machine.”

What Martin was referring to was the volleyball team’s answer to a baseball pitching machine – a contraption on stilts featuring a spinning wheel that spits out volleyballs at up to 60 mph.

The team used the machine to simulate the speed of Gordon’s attacks, although assistant coach Dave Boos said it might not have been fast enough.

Boos should know. He has immitated as Gordon in practices since he joined the team three years ago.

“I’m not even close to her ability,” Boos said. “It’s a humbling experience. I can’t hit the ball as hard as she can, and I can’t jump as high as she can.”

Regardless, the Gophers coaches said they hope the preparation pays off against Gordon and Ohio State. If not, gazing toward the end of the Big Ten season could reveal a championship picture clouded with Buckeyes red.