Improved hitting powers team past ’Cats, Illini

The Gophers beat Northwestern and Illinois and improved to 10-2 in the Big Ten.

Minnesota outside hitter Katherine Harms spikes the ball against Illinois on Sunday at Williams Arena.

Bridget Bennett

Minnesota outside hitter Katherine Harms spikes the ball against Illinois on Sunday at Williams Arena.

Megan Ryan

Solid hitting led the Gophers volleyball team to straight-set victories over Northwestern and Illinois this weekend.

Minnesota beat the Illini 25-19, 26-24 and 25-22  Sunday at Williams Arena and improved to 10-2 in the Big Ten .

The Gophers managed to keep Illinois’ hitting percentage to just .069  in the first set. Head coach Hugh McCutcheon  said the Illini’s errors and the Gophers’ blocking produced the low percentage.

Illinois had seven attack errors in the first set, and the Gophers tallied four blocks .

“I think we were in good spots,” McCutcheon said. “I think we did a nice job versus their slide.”

McCutcheon said his team stuffed Illinois senior middle blocker Erin Johnson  several times to keep the slide kill at bay.

After the first set, the Illini improved their hitting percentage to higher than .250  for the next two sets.

“They made changes, as you would expect from a good team,” McCutcheon said. “Second and third set, certainly they were cleaner.”

But the Gophers improved, too. Their hitting percentage increased from .207 in the first set to .262 in the second and .421 in  the third.

McCutcheon said the setters made better choices, but he also praised senior outside hitter Katherine Harms, junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman, junior middle blocker Tori Dixon and senior middle blocker Dana Knudsen for leading the attack.

“[They] were all carrying a good load for us,” McCutcheon said. “That’s important that we have a lot of ways to kill the ball — lots of people that can get it done.”

Three Gophers hitters hit at least .400 in the match. Dixon hit .435, Harms hit .405 and Knudsen hit .400. Harms led the team with 17 kills while Dixon followed with 14 and Wittman had eight.

Dixon also had a solid serving match, recording two of the team’s six aces with no errors .

McCutcheon said the atmosphere in Williams Arena better suited float servers like Dixon.

“It might not be the hardest serve in the world, but I work hard on trying to place it well and put it on people that normally don’t want to pass,” Dixon said.

Dixon said she also works on how her serve moves in the air, whether it dives right or falls short.

Dixon also said her team is improving at defending attacks from opposing setters.

“Our whole blocking system is getting better,” Dixon said. “In practice, we do it awesome — it’s just in the game, it’s different applying [it]. … As a team we’re just getting better at reading the right things.”

Northwestern

The Gophers’ improved hitting began against Northwestern on Friday at the Sports Pavilion.

McCutcheon said before the match that defenses were learning how to pick apart his team’s hitters.

After focused offensive practices this week, Minnesota beat the Wildcats 25-19, 26-24, 25-20. 

The last time the Gophers faced the Wildcats, Minnesota dropped the first set  before winning the next three. McCutcheon said starting strong wasn’t a problem this match.

“I thought we actually started really well, and especially from the service line, I thought we were particularly strong,” McCutcheon said. “It was probably very disconcerting for Northwestern to get so many serves coming so quick and with a lot of different … spins [and] speeds.”

Minnesota had six service aces  in the first set. Freshman outside hitter Daly Santana  and Wittman each had two, while Harms and freshman libero Lindsey Lawmaster each had one.

McCutcheon said his team didn’t live or die by its serves, but they did give the Gophers room in the score to attack.

Unlike the first set, Northwestern and Minnesota exchanged the lead several times in the second set. The Wildcats kept the score mostly within a point.

McCutcheon said the team’s hitting practice really paid off in the second set.

“We’ve worked a lot on our hitting this week, especially just our out-of-system stuff,” McCutcheon said. “At the end of that second set, it was our out-of-system hitting that got us where we needed to go to win that thing.”

Harms led the Gophers with a dominant match all around. She had 19 kills, a .485 hitting percentage, three aces, six digs and three blocks.

Harms attributed her performance to her team and technique-based practice.

“We talk a lot about keeping the ball in front of you. It’s a lot easier to see where you’re hitting when the ball is in front of you than above your head,” Harms said “It’s not necessarily big stuff that people are going to notice. It’s just the tiny little things that make every swing a little bit more successful.”

McCutcheon said Friday he could “wax on” about Harms’ stellar performance for hours.

“A lot of kudos goes to the hitters for trying to make some changes,” McCutcheon said. “They’re already pretty good, and yet they’re coming into the gym every day willing and trying to make improvements. And I think that was shown here tonight.”

The No. 10 Gophers travel next weekend  to face No. 1 Penn State and No. 20  Ohio State.