Nearly 11,000 see Minnesota win

Kent Erdahl

The matchup between Minnesota’s second-ranked volleyball team and No. 23 Illinois over the weekend at Williams Arena promised a couple of interesting storylines.

But the final story was thin and seriously lacked drama, which was just fine with the Gophers.

The match featured the Gophers volleyball team returning to Williams Arena for the first time in more than a decade in search of a new attendance record. It also promised a showdown between the Illinois best-in-Big-Ten offense and Minnesota’s best-in-conference defense.

In the end, the Gophers (18-2, 7-1 Big Ten) emerged in grand fashion, claiming a convincing win and destroying the 14-year-old attendance record.

Minnesota’s players said they knew the night would be special the first time they took the floor. The attendance record of 6,046 was clearly in danger well before the first point was won.

“When we came out for warm-ups there were already a ton of people there, and that’s when we got floored a little bit,” outside hitter Trisha Bratford said. “We were like, ‘Wow, people are actually going to show up. A lot of people are going to show up.’ “

By the time people finally stopped filing in, sometime late in the first game, the crowd had filled the entire first level of the Barn and nearly filled the second as well.

The final tally of 10,927 was easily the school record and a Division I high this year by more than 2,000 people.

The Gophers fans who turned out had plenty to cheer for.

Head coach Mike Hebert said he considered the Illini (13-4, 5-3) the hottest offensive team in the conference, and the Gophers focused on shutting them down with a defense that has garnered attention throughout the country.

“We try to take away the essence of what the other team is, and so it was a matchup of our defense against their offense,” Hebert said. “I thought that we did enough defensively to frustrate them.”

If frustration was the game plan, the Gophers executed it perfectly.

Minnesota’s block-and-service defense stifled the Illini throughout, and the results began to build in the error column.

Illinois finished the match with 32 hitting errors and 19 service errors.

Hebert said the errors were probably a result of trying to do too much in response to Minnesota’s defense.

“When you decide to serve tough, you’re going to have a lot of serving errors,” Hebert said. “That was a compliment to us probably.”

Libero Paula Gentil and setter Lindsey Taatjes spearheaded the defensive effort with 27 and 22 digs, respectively.

But the game plan was so contagious that everyone got into the act.

Middle blockers Meredith Nelson and Jessica Byrnes combined for six Minnesota blocks, including three solo efforts by Nelson.

In a crucial point of game two, outside hitter Erin Martin decided to show off her digging skills.

With Minnesota up one game to nothing and the second game tied at 28, Martin dropped back from the net and fielded a scalding Illinois attack. The dig sailed back over the net and the Illini failed to return the rally.

“Defense gets us more pumped up almost than some kills,” Martin said. “To get a huge dig like that and keep us in the game was just awesome.”

Martin finished off the game on the next point, rifling her own attack into the floor on Illinois’ side, giving Minnesota a commanding 2-0 lead.

The Gophers slipped up in the third game, losing 30-28 and snapping a 19-game home winning streak.

But they recovered by outhitting Illinois by a staggering margin of .414-.000 in the fourth game. They were led by Bratford, who recorded five of her 11 kills and hit .455 in the final game.

In the end, the Gophers rolled past the attendance mark and over the No. 23 team in the nation. And Gentil said that even the game three loss wasn’t all that bad because it added some drama.

“I’m sure the crowd liked it,” Gentil said. “They got to see more volleyball.”