STATE COLLEGE, Pa., — The drive up the highway to State College from Harrisburg is lined with mountains on both sides of the two-lane road.
But none of those mountains came close to the size of the one the Minnesota volleyball team tried to climb Thursday night.
Top-ranked Penn State was a challenge larger than nearby Mt. Nittany and the Gophers just couldn’t overcome it. Minnesota was competitive with the Lions, but Penn State trapped the Gophers 15-9, 15-9, 17-15.
Without sophomore outside hitter Yvonne Wichert — who elected to sit out the remainder of NCAA games due her recently announced pregnancy — Minnesota had some adjustments to make.
Gophers coach Mike Hebert said his team played well using a lineup it wasn’t familiar with. But combining the new lineup with the adjustments Minnesota already made in their previous two meetings with Penn State, the Gophers had their work cut out for them.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, the hard work didn’t bring home a win.
“We certainly had to do some things differently tonight,” Hebert said. “It seemed that every time we got close to getting over the hump, we just couldn’t buy a break. Unforced errors kept on getting in the way.”
The Gophers committed 29 hitting errors — about twice as many as when they win — and served 12 more errors.
Despite Minnesota killing itself with errors, the depth of the Lions was the deciding factor in this match.
Minnesota did a nice job of slowing down Penn State’s middle hitter Lauren Cacciamani early. The Gophers held the Big Ten MVP to just five kills through the first two games.
But Penn State isn’t a one-trick pony. The Lions had Amanda Rome, Katie Schumacher and Carrie Schonveld to carry the load. The trio combined for 24 kills to pace the Lions to a 2-0 lead.
“You can try to slow down some of the Penn State players,” Hebert said. “But they have an uncanny knack for finding the player you are letting alone, and more often than not, they succeed in taking over the offense.”
Although the two teams have met twice already this season, Penn State coach Russ Rose said the past performances didn’t play a factor in their third meeting.
“At this point in the season every team is very good,” Rose said. “(Minnesota) got our attention early and kept the pressure on.”
Although the Lions sustained Minnesota’s pressure in the first two games, Penn State had to apply some of its own in the third game.
The Gophers came out strong after the intermission to take leads of 8-3 and 13-8. Minnesota had several opportunities to win game three, but the Lions roared back to tie things at 14 before they put the match away, 17-15.
Cacciamani was a spring in the third game. She bounced back to lead the Lions with seven kills in the game and finished with 12 for the evening.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Nicole Branagh struggled to pick up a rhythm all night. The junior outside hitter pitched in 15 kills, but an uncharacteristic 14 hitting errors helped finish the Gophers.
Rose said his game plan was simple: force Branagh to make bad shots.
“We knew she was getting the ball,” Rose said. “She had 1,800 swings this year, that is more than most countries.”
Although Minnesota left Rec Hall with the loss, the Gophers felt they walked off the floor after giving their best effort against the Lions.
“It was definitely our best match of the year against Penn State,” setter Lindsey Berg said. “I’m not happy with the loss, but I’m happy with the effort and I feel we did as much as we could against a great team.”

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]