Spikers overwhelm Lions in sweep

David La Vaque

Penn State’s eighth-ranked volleyball team arrived at the Sports Pavilion on Saturday at 7-0, the Big Ten’s only undefeated team.

Solid as oak, the Lions left in pieces following a trip through a wood chipper called Minnesota.

The Gophers shredded Penn State 30-27, 30-20, 30-19, allowing the third largest crowd in Pavilion history (5,037) to witness Minnesota’s first-ever sweep of the Lions.

“We were a step slow and they were firing on all cylinders,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. The Lions (17-2, 7-1 Big Ten) held a lead twice all evening, both times by a lone point. “Games steamroll and get away from you sometimes,” Rose said.

The contest was so lopsided the Gophers couldn’t even give it away. In game three, No. 9 Minnesota jumped out to a 23-9 lead. Ahead 29-15, the Gophers committed four attack errors and still won easily.

While Rose ripped his team for a collective lack of effort, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert credited his associate head coach Brian Heffernan with the “best game plan of the season.”

Heffernan’s scouting allowed Minnesota to bottle up Penn State’s attack. The Lions hit .123, over .200 points below their season average. In the deciding game, Penn State hit an abysmal -.067.

Meanwhile, the Gophers posted a hitting percentage of .343, rang up 53 kills to the Lions’ 36 and soundly defeated their third top-10 team this season – a program first.

Though his team put its longtime nemesis in a stranglehold, Hebert took more pride in Minnesota’s rekindled spirit.

“What’s gratifying is the team returned to the personality it had at the beginning of the year,” Hebert said. “Lately this group has played too often like it has something to lose.”

The Gophers (20-3, 7-1) put themselves in a relaxed mood Thursday at a team meeting. The players took stock of their recent cautious play and decided to take a more loose approach to Saturday’s match.

The end result was a performance Hebert ranked as his team’s best this season.

Leading the charge on the court was junior Cassie Busse (14 kills) and sophomore Trisha Bratford (11). While Busse – who leads the Gophers in kills with 318 this season – played her usual game, Bratford provided a spark all night.

Bratford led Minnesota with six kills in game one. In game two, Bratford returned volley with a demoralizing kill to make the score 24-17 and force Penn State to call timeout.

Later in game two, Bratford provided two digs in a long rally to give the Gophers a commanding 27-18 lead.

Following the match, Bratford and Hebert shared a long embrace. It was a fitting moment, the coach reveling in his team’s win with the player who embodied its renewed flair.

“He’s been telling me I have great potential and that I need to keep executing like I did at the beginning of the year,” Bratford said. “Tonight was probably the best I’ve played since I’ve been here.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]