Gophers off to Calif. for another big test

For the fourth time in two weeks, Minnesota will take on a ranked opponent.

Mark Heise

The last time the Minnesota volleyball team traveled to California, a freshman middle blocker by the name of Jessy Jones was helping send the Gophers into the 2004 National Championship game.

Jones, now a senior, will be the only player left from that squad as Minnesota travels to compete this weekend at the Golden Bear Classic in Berkeley, Calif.

The 12th-ranked Gophers (2-2 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) will take on Eastern Kentucky Friday at 6:30 p.m. before playing two matches Saturday, facing Utah State at 2 p.m. and No. 15 California at 9 p.m.

And while it should be a nice change of pace compared to last week’s matchups against three ranked teams, junior setter Rachel Hartmann said they won’t be taking anyone for granted.

“I think we learned a big lesson from the Ohio loss,” she said. “We’re not going to take anyone lightly; we’re counting every match as a big match.”

The Gophers’ first opponent doesn’t appear to be much of a threat at all, as Eastern Kentucky (1-5, 0-0 Ohio Valley Conference) has already been swept four times by unranked teams.

Despite a hitting percentage nearly 100 points lower than their opponents, the Colonels still do have a few players who require some attention.

Junior middle blocker Amanda Wilson is averaging 3.9 kills per game for Eastern Kentucky, despite standing at just 5-feet-10-inches; six inches shorter than the Gophers’ tallest player.

Utah State (2-4, 0-0 WAC) holds a slightly stronger record than the Colonels, but has also been swept four times by unranked opponents.

Two outside hitters, senior Amanda Nielson and junior Melissa Osterloh, have combined to account for over 60 percent of the Aggies’ kills so far this year but have also collaborated for a weak .115 hitting percentage.

California should be the biggest competition of the weekend, and was the team coach Mike Hebert called an extremely talented team.

“Cal will be a definite test,” he said. “In that match, we’re going to have to show some more determination at the critical points than we did against Ohio. That will be the focus for this weekend.”

The Golden Bears (5-1, 0-0 PAC-10) enter the tournament on the heels of a three-game loss to Colorado last weekend but have proven to be dominant in every other match this season.

California has been successful on both sides of the ball, hitting .336 as a team while holding opponents to a stingy .050. Leading the way for the Golden Bears is the 5-foot-8-inch senior outside hitter Angie Pressey.

Pressey has reached double-digits in kills four times this season, while maintaining a hit percentage of .387.

But the Gophers have also been hitting the ball well so far this season, averaging nearly 16 kills per game while out-blocking opponents by a full two blocks per game.

Freshman outside hitter Brook Dieter is averaging nearly 4.7 kills per game, while Jones adds 3.19 kills and 1.5 blocks per game.

With teams from two traditionally strong conferences, this matchup could be described as a Pac Ten/Big Ten faceoff. And if that’s the case, Dieter said it’s her team’s job to represent their conference.

“The Big Ten is starting to get overlooked because the Pac Ten is getting bigger and better,” she said. “I think it will be a good chance to show that the Big Ten is still powerful.”