Minnesota opens conference play on road

In the past six seasons, the Gophers are 10-2 against Northwestern and 9-3 against Illinois.

Mark Heise

With six Big Ten teams in the top 25 this season, the volleyball competition in the conference looks to be even more challenging than Minnesota’s nonconference schedule.

The Gophers kick off their conference season on the road this year, taking on Northwestern (6-3 overall) tonight at 7 p.m., before traveling to play Illinois (9-1 overall) Saturday.

Senior libero Malama Peniata said she was looking forward to returning to the conference schedule, but also understood the competition level the team would be facing.

“I think we’re ready to start the conference season and excited to get back into the Big Ten,” she said. “But now every night is going to be a hard night, and we’ll have to perform well if we’re going to succeed.”

The Gophers start things off against an underachieving Northwestern team. Picked to finish sixth in the conference, the Wildcats have failed to live up to their hype so far. Northwestern lost a close match to unranked Western Michigan early in the season, but has shown signs of returning to the form that earned it preseason attention.

The Wildcats knocked off 24th-ranked Arizona in their most recent match thanks in part to junior outside hitter Courtnie Paulus, who continued her already solid season with 15 kills, 16 digs and four service aces.

With plenty of young talent adding to the strength of their roster, Northwestern could be a formidable opponent, depending on which team shows up tonight.

Coach Mike Hebert took a cautious position when talking about Northwestern and Illinois, pointing out several strong points of each club.

“These teams are always competitive, especially at home,” he said. “We can’t make very many mistakes. You always have to be at your best when you’re on the road.”

Saturday’s match at Illinois is supposed to be the easier match of the two, but the Gophers instead will face one of the hotter teams in the conference, as the Illini have won nine of their first 10 games. Illinois was picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten, but instead has been impressive, limiting opponents to a .154 hit percentage.

The Illini have yet to face a ranked opponent, however, taking on their first tonight against Wisconsin. Tonight’s match should give a true measure of Illinois’ talent, and could help the Gophers scout for weaknesses.

Minnesota has every reason to look toward this weekend with optimism, as the Gophers blew away last week’s competition while putting on, as Hebert said earlier this week, their “best performance of the season.”

Besides its momentum, Minnesota traditionally has played well against both teams, going 10-2 against Northwestern over the past six seasons while compiling a 9-3 mark against Illinois.

Senior outside hitter Kelly Bowman said she felt the past successes worked well as a confidence booster.

“We’ve played really well against these teams in the past,” she said. “I think that gives us some confidence going into the match, knowing we’ve excelled in past matches.”

Peniata earns honors

Peniata finished last weekend with 49 digs and four service aces, picking up the Diet Coke Classic Tournament MVP award.

Peniata’s big weekend earned even more attention, as the Big Ten conference named her Defensive Player of the Week. This is the first time in her career she has won the award.