Tough losses jeopardize Big Ten championship hopes

The Gophers dropped a pair of conference matches at home this weekend.

by Mark Heise

The Minnesota volleyball team might have already knocked itself out of conference contention, suffering through its toughest weekend of play since 2005.

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What: Volleyball
when: 7 p.m., Friday
where: Evanston, Ill.

The Gophers lost two matches at home, getting swept by ninth-ranked Wisconsin on Friday, 28-30, 26-30, 25-30, before dropping the match to Illinois in four games Saturday, 25-30, 25-30, 30-18, 21-30.

“We didn’t play very well, and that’s the bottom line,” coach Mike Hebert said. “It kind of surprised all of us because we had a great week of practice, but for some reason it just didn’t happen.”

Wisconsin did not appear crisp out of the gate Friday, but the Badgers only needed to play better than the Gophers, and were able to overcome a 28-27 deficit to pick up a win. Wisconsin’s 10 attack errors and awful .143 hitting percentage was masked by Minnesota’s .111 hit percentage.

Things continued to go against the Gophers in the second game, as numerous double-hit violations were called throughout the game. Along with the violations, Minnesota’s defense seemed to struggle to get on track, allowing several quick points.

Wisconsin (16-1, 8-0) hit .349 while collecting 20 kills against the sluggish defense. Freshman middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer tried to keep the Gophers in the game with five kills, but the Badgers maintained a cushion to cruise to a 30-26 win.

“We felt it was a little too chaotic out there,” senior middle blocker Jessy Jones said. “For the first time this year we weren’t really playing as a team. We usually come together, but for some reason, today wasn’t our day.”

Hitting just .089 in the third game, Minnesota’s chances of mounting a comeback faded fast. The Gophers just couldn’t find any luck, as junior outside hitter Kyla Roehrig’s spike late in the game found open court on Minnesota’s side of the net after what looked like a failed dig attempt by the Badgers.

“Most of the issues were on our side of the net, we had people who normally play pretty good defense who just didn’t play very well tonight,” Hebert said. “There wasn’t anybody who played exceptionally well defensively.”

Illinois (12-6, 4-4) had been struggling to pick up wins despite playing well all season, but this weekend the Illini managed to make it over that hump.

Illinois freshman outside hitter Laura DeBruler collected seven kills in the first game, while the Gophers’ passing continued to struggle, forcing the entire offense out of rhythm. Minnesota committed five service errors, losing game one 25-30.

The second game held the same result. Jones made her first major impact since her ankle injury, collecting four kills in the second game, but she didn’t get much help as the Gophers recorded just 12 kills and 10 errors to lose their eighth consecutive game, a streak which began last Saturday against Penn State.

Junior outside hitter Katie Vatterrodt entered the contest late in game two and made an immediate impact at the start of the third game.

Vatterrodt and sophomore hitter Rachelle Hagerty each hammered four kills, while Gibbemeyer added three kills and four big blocks. For the first time in the weekend, Minnesota looked like an 11th-ranked team, building a comfortable 22-12 lead and winning 30-18.

“Game three was basically our team out there, the other games we weren’t ourselves,” Gibbemeyer said. “In the other games we couldn’t put balls away, but in game three, we found that energy. We just need to find a way to play like that all the time.”

The energy disappeared for the final game, as the Gophers fell behind early and never caught up, losing 21-30 to put them in a deep hole in conference play.

The weekend was definitely a struggle, but Jones gave good news, saying the problems from the weekend are fixable.

“This is just a bump in the road,” she said. “We’re learning from this now, but we’re going to work things out. That team is still there, they were there in the third game. There’s no reason to think that we aren’t going to be great. We just had a little problem here. We can fix that.”