‘Very average’ play leads Minnesota to sweeps of B-10 foes

Kent Erdahl

He struggled to admit it, but Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert said two “very average” performances by his team over the weekend actually helped to prove its elite status.

Hebert said the No. 3 Gophers were visibly flat and outplayed at times against Wisconsin and Northwestern Friday and Saturday at the Sports Pavilion, but the coach’s letdowns yielded little more than a hiccup in the final tallies.

Minnesota swept the Badgers 30-22, 30-26 and 31-29, and the Wildcats 30-21, 30-26 and 30-27, by relying on consistent setting and some brilliant individual performances.

Badger battle

Minnesota’s biggest test came against Wisconsin on Friday.

Despite earning a sweep, Minnesota often struggled with a Badger game plan focused on shutting down Minnesota’s strengths – libero Paula Gentil and outside hitters Erin Martin and Trisha Bratford.

The Badgers stifled Martin and Bratford at the net with a towering block. Martin tallied 11 kills and a .105 hitting percentage. Bratford recorded seven kills with a miniscule .040 percentage.

In addition, the Wisconsin offense blatantly avoided hitting at two-time All-American Gentil.

The avoidance strategy paid off at the start of the games. Wisconsin reached a tie at 20 in each contest, but Minnesota separated itself down the stretch.

“It’s a risky strategy (to hit away from Gentil), but it was working for the first two-thirds of each game,” Hebert said. “What happened in the last third? I can’t say it’s anything we did. I think our players are very experienced and they understand you have to win the right points to win the game.”

The biggest difference in the last third of the games was Minnesota’s control of the serve. Bratford, Lisa Reinhart and Lindsey Taatjes all recorded key aces in the last points of each game

“That’s a big difference in veteran teams,” said Wisconsin coach Pete Waite. “They play strong down the stretch of a match. They showed that in their serving game.”

Despite that serving superiority and a consistent middle attack led by Jess Byrnes’ 12 kills and .400 hitting percentage, Hebert said the Gophers were lucky to emerge with a win.

“If we play like this again against Wisconsin at their place I’ll be very surprised if we win,” he said.

Wildcat whimper

Minnesota came out looking to bury unranked Northwestern on Saturday, and after the first two games it looked as if the Gophers wouldn’t have any trouble.

Martin and Bratford led Minnesota to two forceful victories in games one and two, and the duo finished with one of their most efficient nights ever.

Bratford recorded 16 kills and hit .500 for the match.

Martin tallied 18 kills and hit .412.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an outside hitter with no errors. That’s exceptional.” Hebert said of Bratford. “(The hitting percentages) are numbers, statistically, that any coach would cut off an arm for.”

Although he said he was happy with his hitters, Hebert spent most of game three shaking his head because instead of putting the Wildcats away, the Gophers trailed until finally tying things up at 26.

Minnesota recovered in time, but Hebert said the weekend performance, especially of the defense, was disappointing.

“We’re humans you know. We can’t play good all the time,” Gentil said. “But I thought we could have given more effort because you can do that even when you’re playing bad.”

Hebert agreed that the team needed to show more effort but in his final comments, he said he might have been too negative.

“I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. Any win in the conference is huge because it’s so competitive,” Hebert said. “If we can win two matches without our best effort, then we’re definitely an elite team.”

– David McCoy contributed to this story.