Volleyball team swept by Badgers, loses first of year

Brian Stensaas

A crowd of 4,523 showed up Friday night at the Sports Pavilion to witness the first matchup of two top-10 teams in the building’s history.
The majority of the showing — the second largest in Pavilion history — was on the side of the No. 5 Minnesota volleyball team.
It didn’t matter.
Packed on the east end of the floor were members of the Gophers swimming and diving team, which heckled No. 10 Wisconsin all night long at the service line, during returns and at timeouts.
It didn’t matter.
Squeezed somewhere in the seats was the family of Minnesota captain Lindsey Berg, who came in from Hawaii to brave the cold of the Twin Cities and get a rare opportunity to see her play.
It didn’t matter.
When it came down to it, nothing was going to stop the Badgers. Not the crowd, not the Gophers, not the weather, nothing.
A brick wall could have been built around the net and the Badgers would have found a way to get around it en route to their 15-13, 15-1, 15-13 win over the Gophers.
The loss snapped a 15-match winning streak for Minnesota, which was the longest streak in the nation this season and in school history.
“There were times where they were flawless,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said of Wisconsin. “If they didn’t block, they dug. If they weren’t blocking or digging, they were passing well enough to find the seams in our block and hitting right through them.”
The story line of the entire match was seen right away in the first game.
The Gophers jumped out to a quick 12-5 lead in the first stanza before the Badgers got things cooking. As has been the case in the two years previous against the Gophers, middle blocker Sherisa Livingston took control of Wisconsin’s offense.
The 6-foot-2 junior came off the bench to smack 12 kills in the first game, erasing Minnesota’s dominating lead. Livingston finished with 26 kills for the match.
But Wisconsin’s gun isn’t loaded with just one bullet. Along with Livingston, the Badgers bring 6-foot-1 senior Jenny Maastricht to the floor. It became a matter of which player to put the emphasis on.
But again, it didn’t matter.
If Livingston was being watched like a hawk by Minnesota, Badgers setter Lizzy Fitzgerald would slide the ball off to an open Maastricht. Not that Livingston couldn’t get the job done anyway. On a few occasions, she converted a kill through triple coverage.
“We tried everything,” Berg said. “It got to be the point where as the setter, I had tried every option possible. They weren’t doing anything wrong, they played an errorless game.”
After scoring the first point of the second game, the Gophers sacrificed the last 15 to Wisconsin.
Following the intermission between games two and three, Minnesota could have tried to flee the Sports Pavilion. But instead the Gophers decided to stick around.
One last time, it wouldn’t have mattered.
In the end Wisconsin was just too much. The teams battled to a 10-10 knot before the Badgers put the match away, although it did take them eight attempts on match point to get the win.
Lost in the tough loss was the play of the Gophers middle blocker Stephanie Hagen, who picked up right where she left off from last weekend to lead the Gophers with 20 kills.
After the match, however, the credit went only in Wisconsin’s direction.
“Sometimes you tip your hat to a team that plays awfully well and that’s what I saw tonight,” Hebert said. “I don’t think we were all that bad.”
The Gophers rebounded the following night and were anything but bad Saturday against Northwestern.
Showing no signs of fatigue or letdown from the Wisconsin match, Minnesota took care of the Wildcats with ease 15-8, 15-3, 15-7.
The main difference between Friday and Saturday’s matches for Minnesota was team cleanliness. Minnesota committed 25 errors against the Badgers as opposed to just 10 against the Wildcats.
“This was a very thorough victory for us, the numbers all look good,” Hebert said. “We certainly did things we were unable to do against Wisconsin.”
The Gophers didn’t change the game plan one iota from the previous night. They were just a little more precise at doing so.
Northwestern is a smaller team and it showed at the net as Branagh was able to lead the team with 15 kills. Hagen added 11 kills with an impressive hitting percentage of .688 and no errors.
“It was nice to get back into the rhythm,” said outside hitter Lisa Aschenbrenner, who notched a season high .364 hitting percentage against Northwestern. “We tried to erase (the Wisconsin match). We tried to re-focus and play the game we know how to play.”

Spikes
ù Northwestern’s sole heartbeat against Minnesota was freshman middle blocker Ericka Lange who finished with 11 kills, leading the team.
Lange was heavily recruited by Hebert but she ultimately chose the Wildcats over the Gophers because of the academics at Northwestern.
ù Minnesota defensive specialist Lisa Axel was honored between games two and three against Northwestern as a member of Minnesota Volleyball’s Hometown Days.
The mayor of Buffalo, Minn. declared Oct. 7 as Lisa Axel hometown day in Buffalo.
Women’s athletic director Chris Voelz, Axel’s high school coaches and family, along with several members from her hometown were on hand for the celebration.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]