V-ball team plays best and worst in Big Ten

Tim Klobuchar

The Gophers volleyball team will take an ambitious trip this weekend.
The journey will cover both the north and south poles of the Big Ten standings, as the Gophers travel to first-place Michigan State for a match tonight and to last-place Northwestern on Saturday.
At first glance, the Spartans match appears to be the big match of the weekend. After all, a Minnesota win would bring the Spartans closer to the rest of pack and give the surging Gophers yet another shot of confidence. It will also be a good barometer to see exactly where Minnesota stands against the best of the conference.
Actually, though, the more important match for the Gophers involves another team looking up — the Wildcats, who have been looking up at the other teams in the standings all year.
“We’re preparing much more for Northwestern,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. “It’s the pivotal match on the trip. A win at Michigan State would be a bonus, but we must be prepared for Northwestern. It’s a match we have much more of a chance to win. Not that we can’t win at Michigan State, but we can’t let Northwestern get lost in the shuffle.”
The Wildcats, 9-12 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten, might pose a unique problem for the Gophers.
“Michigan State is much more orthodox, and that’s how we practice,” Minnesota setter Becky Bauer said. “Northwestern is more unorthodox. Their hits might not always go where they want them, so we have to be ready.”
It’s a match the Gophers have to win, but if the Wildcats’ ineptitude is one of their prime concerns, the more interesting of the two matches is probably tonight in East Lansing, Mich.
The Gophers, 15-6 overall, 6-2 in the Big Ten, have won 12 of their last 14 matches and are tied for second in the conference. But a win against the Spartans would still qualify as a major upset.
No. 6 Michigan State, (14-4, 8-0) hasn’t lost a Big Ten home match since 1994 and has won 13 matches in a row overall. They have two returning All-Americans in senior middle blockers Dana Cooke and Val Sterk and the 1995 National Coach of the Year, Chuck Erbe.
Last season, his third at Michigan State, Erbe guided his team to a 34-3 record and a berth in the NCAA semifinals. Erbe coached Southern California to four national championships in the late 1970s and early 1980s before he was fired after the 1988 season.
Minnesota coach Mike Hebert, then in the middle of his tenure at Illinois, hired his friend Erbe as one of his assistants for the 1989 season. Hebert eventually helped Erbe get the Michigan State job in 1993, and Erbe’s proven he hasn’t lost his touch.
He took over a team that was at the bottom of the Big Ten and, despite going 9-22 in his first year, led the Spartans to their first-ever Big Ten title in just three seasons.
Hebert found himself in a similar situation, though not quite as dire, when he took over this year. The Gophers finished eighth in the Big Ten last year and 13-17 overall, but have already surpassed that victory total this season. Despite the similarities between the coaches, the match will be business as usual.
“I never look at personal coaching matchups,” Erbe said. “I don’t look at it as me versus Mike. It’s just team versus team. It’s a very important match for both of us. They’re trying to make a move for the upper echelon of the conference.”
As tough as it looks on paper to beat Michigan State, the Gophers are still confident in their chances in every match, a definite change from last year.
“We knew we could win at certain times last year,” said Gophers junior Sarah Pearman. “But we were real streaky. There were times when we were at rock bottom.”