Midweek match against Northern Iowa could be pivotal

Mark Heise

Rivalries require a history and there is plenty of history between Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

When the Gophers’ volleyball team takes on the Panthers tonight in Rochester for this year’s Border Battle, it will be the eighth-straight season these two teams have faced off, a few of which marked the turning point of a season.

It was Northern Iowa that knocked Minnesota out of the NCAA Tournament in 2001, while the Gophers got their revenge in 2003.

Minnesota beat the Panthers – the sixth-ranked team in the country – Sept. 17, 2003, starting them on a downward spiral that would end when the Gophers knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round.

That first win was a turning point for Minnesota as well, as the Gophers started a climb up the polls from No. 22 to No. 4 by season’s end and reached the program’s first Final Four.

This year, Northern Iowa (7-4 overall) comes in with a two-game winning streak, including a 3-2 win over 23rd-ranked Notre Dame. Minnesota (2-4 overall) enters the match following two straight losses to ranked teams, but has shown improvement and will be playing in its home state for the first time this year.

Junior middle blocker Jessy Jones expressed her excitement to be home and even spoke of a home-court advantage.

“We get a lot of fan support when we play in Rochester,” she said. “Just to have that support helps add a couple of points for us in a match. There’s no greater feeling than game day at home.”

Those extra points could prove to be the difference tonight, as this matchup has historically been close, with four of the past five meetings going at least four games.

Entering this year’s match, both teams are battling for a spot in the top 25.

Northern Iowa brings a solid team to the floor, including Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week, junior outside hitter Laura Rowen. Rowen led the team with an average of four kills per game last week, including a 26-kill match against Alabama.

While the Panthers have lacked consistency in their hitting, their defense has been their strength, especially on the front line. Northern Iowa out-blocked their opponents 49-34 last weekend and have only lost one match this season when tallying more blocks than the opposing squad.

As threatening as the Panthers can be, the Gophers have more than one reason to be confident. Aside from the home-court advantage, Minnesota will be at full strength for the first time this season, as senior libero Malama Peniata returns to action after serving her suspension.

Sophomore setter Rachel Hartmann said she was looking forward to Peniata’s return, although she was happy with the team’s passing game in her absence.

“(Freshman libero Christine) Tan did an amazing job for us last week,” Hartmann said. “But even though our passing was great last weekend, getting Malama (Peniata) back will be a huge help for us.”

Peniata briefly expressed her excitement to return to the floor, but quickly got down to business.

“I’m really excited to jump back in and help out,” she said. “But our number one focus as we head into a stretch at home is to play the way we’re capable of and show our fans how much we have improved since the end of last season.”