Spikers face streaky Arizona to open Sweet 16

Ben Goessling

When Minnesota’s volleyball team heads to Palo Alto, Calif., for Thursday and Friday’s Pacific Regional, it will have a wealth of information on two of its three potential opponents.

The problem is, the one team the ninth-ranked Gophers know they will play is also the one they have the hardest time reading.

No. 12 Arizona, Minnesota’s opponent Thursday night, might be the most dangerous team left in the tournament. The Wildcats (19-11) are one of four teams in the country to beat defending national champion Stanford this season. Arizona made an appearance in last year’s Final Four, losing to Long Beach State in the national semifinals.

Arizona might also be the team most capable of flaming out. Among the Wildcats’ 11 losses are sweeps suffered at the hands of Louisville, California and Washington – teams that all exited during the tournament’s first weekend.

The challenge for Minnesota coach Mike Hebert is to determine which side of the two-faced Wildcats his team will see.

“It’s an interesting draw,” Hebert said. “They were a Final Four team last year, and their recruiting class was tops in the country, but they have a few losses that will raise your eyebrow.”

If Minnesota defeats the Wildcats on Thursday night, it will face a much more familiar opponent Friday night in either Stanford or Ohio State. With a win Thursday night, Minnesota would advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history. Two victories send the Gophers to next weekend’s Final Four in New Orleans.

The Gophers split the season series with the Buckeyes, winning five games at Ohio State’s St. John Arena but receiving a stunning three-game loss at the Sports Pavilion on Nov. 23, the night after they clinched the Big Ten championship.

Minnesota faced the Cardinal in the championship match of the State Farm Classic in August, taking game two and briefly grabbing the lead in the third game before Stanford felled the Gophers in four games.

Outside hitter Erin Martin would love another shot at Stanford and thinks Minnesota would stand taller the second time around.

“They have all the same players healthy, and they’re not much different, but we are a lot better than before,” Martin said. “We played well last time, and (outside hitter) Trisha Bratford has been unstoppable lately. We have a much better chance this time.”

But before the Gophers can take their swings at the Cardinal or Buckeyes, they must get past a Wildcats team that poses some inherent problems for the Gophers.

Arizona boasts three outstanding athletes in hitters Kim Glass and Lisa Rutledge, as well as middle blocker Bre Ladd.

“We haven’t seen a tandem that can hit out of the back row like Glass and Rutledge can,” Hebert said. “The match will be won on the left side, and we will focus on containing those two.”

Ladd, a freshman, was named the 2001 Gatorade National High School Volleyball Player of the Year, and fellow rookie Glass was tabbed the No. 2 recruit in the country by Volleyball Magazine last year.

Martin said the Gophers practiced for Arizona’s athletic attack by bringing in several players from the men’s club volleyball team and running a drill where the team must play defense without front-row blockers.

Arizona’s back-row attack will be remarkably similar to the one Ohio State’s Stacey Gordon employed to give the Gophers fits this season.

Setter Lindsey Vander Well acknowledged the troubles Minnesota could have with the Wildcats’ offense, but added the Gophers are better prepared for Arizona after facing Gordon.

“It gives us another thing to be aware of,” she said. “But I think we have gotten used to it in practice, and we’ll be ready for it.”

More awards for Gophers

vander Well, outside hitter Cassie Busse and libero Paula Gentil were named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s All-Mideast Region team Wednesday.

In addition, Hebert was selected as the Mideast Region’s coach of the year.

The awards come on the heels of Minnesota’s loot of Big Ten honors, which were announced last Monday. Vander Well, Busse and Gentil were named first-team all-conference selections, and Hebert was tabbed conference coach of the year. In addition, Gentil garnered conference defensive player of the year honors and was named with middle blocker Jessica Byrnes to the conference’s all-freshman team.

Lights, camera, volleyball

friday night’s Pacific Regional final will be televised live by Fox Sports Net North at 11 p.m.

Should the Gophers advance to the final, they will make their third live and seventh overall appearance on television this season.

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]