Volleyball set for NCAA tournament

With 15 Big Ten wins and a second-place finish in the conference, the Minnesota volleyball team has shown its stuff around the upper Midwest.
Now, with an NCAA tournament berth, the Gophers (25-8, 15-5 Big Ten) will get to show their flair nationally. And what better place to do that than in the glitz and glamour of southern California?
Minnesota departed for Los Angeles on Wednesday, and will begin its tournament run tonight against Cal State-Sacramento.
Although the Gophers would have liked to play host this weekend, they have an impressive 13-5 record away from campus and their confidence is high.
“We wanted to host, but we’re happy we’re in the tourney and we’re playing well,” sophomore setter Lindsey Berg said. “We haven’t played much different on the road this year.”
But this weekend road trip will be a different challenge for Minnesota — they will face teams they are less familiar with.
“We have one of the nastiest draws of the tournament,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “But we’re quite prepared to play two difficult matches in a row, because we do that every weekend.”
That nasty draw begins tonight with Sacramento. The Hornets(22-9, 13-3 Big Sky) won their conference’s regular season title but were bumped by Cal State-Northridge in the Big Sky tournament finals.
Sacramento goes to Los Angeles led by senior outside hitter Angela Lewis, who is averaging 4.55 kills a game. The Hornets also have senior setter Maureen Rafferty, who anchors the Sacramento attack with a .210 hitting percentage.
Hebert said although the Hornets aren’t well known — he compares them to an undefeated Northern Iowa team — they are a legitimate first-round opponent for the Gophers.
“Cal State-Sacramento is widely known as a dangerous team, they are known as the giant killers,” Hebert said. “They play a very scrappy defensive game and will stick their shins out and come right after us.”
Hornets coach Debby Colberg agreed with Hebert, and said her team is often overshadowed by other teams in her region. She also said Minnesota will be a battle for her club, but they are looking forward to it.
“We don’t often get to play teams from the Big Ten, so it will be a challenge for us,” Colberg said. “But the fact they’re from a different part of the country shouldn’t make a whole lot of difference.”
If the Gophers fly by the Hornets, their next step will be the winner of the Hofstra-Southern California match.
Hebert said he thinks a matchup with fourth-seeded Trojans seems likely.
Southern Cal (20-8, 13-5 Pac-10) finished third in a strong conference to earn home-floor advantage. The Trojans are led by Antoinette Polk and her 3.89 kills per game.
Hebert said a win Friday will give his team momentum going into Saturday’s match.
“If we do get by Cal State, the matchup against Southern Cal is one we are looking forward to with a great deal of enthusiasm,” Hebert said. “We’re a very similar team to USC.”
That similarity was proven in the regular season. Minnesota and Southern Cal have three common opponents: UCLA, Hawaii and Oregon.
The Gophers lost to the Bruins and Rainbows, but beat the Ducks. The Trojans did almost the same — they lost to UCLA twice, Hawaii once and beat Oregon twice.
Minnesota senior middle blocker Linda Shudlick said the Gophers will take to the floor in Los Angeles as they do for every other match — except the anxiety level will probably go up a notch.
Hebert said the Gophers are just happy they will get a chance to make their mark in the NCAA tourney.
“We are a northern Midwest team, who has a chance to go out and beat a couple of California teams.” Hebert said. “How good could it get?”

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]