Weekend sweep drowns v-ball

Jim Schortemeyer

A late season sweep by 21st-ranked Illinois and Purdue knocked the Minnesota women’s volleyball team from the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995, and dropped the Gophers into an eighth-place finish in the Big Ten.
The Boilermakers (14-15 overall, 8-12 in the Big Ten) and Illini (20-10, 13-7) were aided by the Gophers’ ill health. Minnesota’s top two outside hitters — sophomore Nicole Branagh and freshman Yvonne Wichert — were injured over the weekend.
Those key losses paved the road for Purdue’s 3-2 win Saturday and Illinois’ 3-1 win Friday.
Branagh was playing her best volleyball of the season — she had 10 kills halfway through the first game — when she was hit by a Purdue player and landed wrong on her left ankle. She was taken to the hospital for X-rays, though the injury was just a sprain.
“Obviously, it was a huge factor that Nicole Branagh was injured,” Purdue coach Joey Vrazel said.
Branagh entered the weekend ranked fourth in the nation in kills. Add to that the loss of Wichert to a lower back strain and the Gophers were in trouble for the remainder of the match.
“We had to play very hard,” coach Mike Hebert said. “We were just one brick short of a load.”
After getting wiped out at the end of the first game, things didn’t look good for Minnesota. Nobody had stepped up to finish off points, and the team looked lost without their top two kill leaders.
Enter sophomore Sonja Posthuma, who fired some punishing spikes at the Boilermakers and finished with 25 kills. Freshman Stephanie Hagen got involved as well, finishing with 19 kills.
Hebert even sought help from the injured Wichert. She entered the match in the fourth and fifth games, but was forced to keep her feet on the ground for much of her court time and didn’t register any kills.
The unusual Minnesota lineup fought its way to a fifth set, where it promptly fell behind 10-5. Although they rallied to 12-14, the Gophers sealed their own fate when Posthuma’s serve hit the net and gave Purdue the win.
“We fell short at the wrong times,” senior Jill McDonell said. “I guess we were just missing tips by an inch, or kills by a foot.”
How big a loss was Branagh? Witness what she did in Friday’s match with Illinois.
In the first game, Branagh strapped the team on her back and carried it to a 20-18 victory. Branagh finished the first game with 16 kills.
“That first game we played with fire and wanted to win,” Branagh said.
But things got ugly from there on. Minnesota was tied with Illinois 8-8 when the Illini tallied seven straight points to win the second game. Illinois then slammed the Gophers 15-3 in the third game. When the smoke cleared, Purdue had gone on a 22-3 run.
“They got a lot better and we got worse,” Hebert said. “Our passing game broke down.”
The run may have been due to the early exit of Wichert, a key figure in Minnesota’s offense. Wichert strained her back going for a kill in the second game, and was visibly hobbled for the rest of the night.
Whatever the cause, the Gophers went into a tailspin from which they couldn’t recover and left them looking toward next season.
The Gophers lose just one senior (McDonell) and return all of their regular starters. Senior Linda Shudlick should be back from a knee injury suffered last spring, and transfer Jill Holmstrom should see court time as well.
As for this season’s eighth-place finish, Hebert seemed upbeat about the Gophers’ progress in the Big Ten season.
“I thought we won the ones we were capable of winning,” Hebert said.