Minn. takes another step back with 2 road losses

Minnesota failed to win a set at OSU and PSU despite holding several late leads.

by Charlie Armitz

The No. 10 Gophers volleyball team learned a lot this weekend about its ability to play in stressful situations.

It just wasnâÄôt what it had expected to learn âÄî or anything close to it.

MinnesotaâÄôs first Big Ten road trip resulted in a pair of straight-set losses to No. 24 Ohio State and No. 9 Penn State âÄî the teamâÄôs first straight-set losses of the season.

The Gophers (8-5) blew five-point leads in the first and third sets Friday night at Ohio State en route to a 23-25, 20-25, 26-28 defeat.

The team followed a similar path in SaturdayâÄôs 15-25, 24-26, 15-25 loss at Penn State, dropping six of the last seven points in the second set.

âÄúI didnâÄôt expect this right now,âÄù interim head coach Laura Bush said of the sweep. âÄúI think I expected this earlier in the season. I was really disappointed Friday night.âÄù

The Buckeyes have swept Minnesota three consecutive times in Columbus, Ohio, dating back to 2009.

The Gophers havenâÄôt won in Penn State since 2004, and have lost 13 of their last 14 matches against the four-time defending national champions.

But this yearâÄôs squad may face bigger problems than unfavorable history.

Atop the list is MinnesotaâÄôs declining serve-pass game.

The Gophers served just two aces over the weekend while committing 15 service errors.

The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, on the other hand, combined for 11 aces and 11 service errors.

Minnesota seniors Hailey Cowles and Jessica Granquist âÄî two normally reliable defensive specialists âÄî committed seven of the teamâÄôs receiving errors on opponentsâÄô aces.

âÄúThey just came after us and we didnâÄôt respond,âÄù Cowles said. âÄúPassing is a mental game, and we got out mentally early in the weekend.âÄù

The Gophers had their chances to win, particularly against Ohio State. Minnesota led 18-13 in the first set, and had a 17-12 lead and four set points in the third set.

But the Buckeyes blocked the GophersâÄô attack on two of those set points before closing the match with three consecutive kills.

In the second set against Penn State, Minnesota led 23-20 and had a set point. But Penn State fought back to a 24-24 tie, and then closed the set with a pair of blocks.

Bush said the team was out of sync Saturday night âÄî possibly a product of the teamâÄôs poor performance less than 24 hours earlier.

âÄúWe were just a little off in every area of the game, which made us look way off as a team,âÄù she said.

The GophersâÄô block âÄî and its inability to counter the opponentâÄôs block âÄî has been a concern all season.

Minnesota ranks last in the Big Ten with 1.97 blocks per set, and has hit into 2.56 blocks per set.

Although Big Ten opponents have easily exposed the GophersâÄô weaknesses âÄî serving, passing and blocking âÄî Bush maintained that the teamâÄôs problem lies in execution, not preparation.

âÄúWe had a really good game plan going [into Ohio State],âÄù Bush said. âÄúWe served to the people we wanted to serve [to] to allow our defense to have a predictable offense in front of them.âÄù

She said that at no point during the weekend did she consider replacing starting setter Mia Tabberson with freshman Kellie McNeil as she had last weekend against Northwestern.

McNeil, who was key to improving the GophersâÄô block against the Wildcats, sat out both road matches.

âÄúI didnâÄôt ever feel like setting was the full issue,âÄù Bush said. âÄúWe just never got into a rhythm.âÄù

Bush added that the teamâÄôs inability to carry its game plan into clutch situations cost them in both matches.

âÄúAs the game goes on, you tend to forget what your plan is,âÄù said senior Ariana Filho. âÄúI think that happened a lot against Ohio State in the third set.

âÄúAgainst Penn State, we got comfortable with getting a little lead on them and didnâÄôt fight to hold it.âÄù

With the two losses, Minnesota falls into a tie for eighth place in conference with a 1-3 record âÄî the programâÄôs worst four-match start to Big Ten play since 1994.

The Gophers will hit the road again next week, playing at No. 17 Michigan on Oct. 7 and at unranked Michigan State on Oct. 8.