Minnesota goes up against the best this weekend

Second-ranked Penn State is 26-7 against the Gophers since 1986.

by Mark Heise

The Minnesota volleyball team’s undefeated Big Ten record could be in jeopardy as it has its biggest challenge of the season this weekend.

Minnesota travels to play No. 2 Penn State at 6 tonight and then moves on to Ohio State to take on the Buckeyes at 2 p.m. Sunday.

According to coach Mike Hebert, these two matches carry more weight than the average conference match.

“We feel that the first six matches of the conference season is where you establish your conference identity,” he said. “We have to finish strong in this six-game set, or we get banished from elite status. We want to maintain our presence in that group, and we’ll try to do whatever that takes.”

The Gophers (10-4 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) will need to play some of their best matches of the season to maintain their perfect conference record, as Penn State and Ohio State haven’t shown too many weaknesses.

The Nittany Lions (15-0, 4-0) are tied with Minnesota for the best record in the conference, and have yet to lose a match on the season. Since 1986, Penn State has dominated the Gophers, leading the series between the teams 26-7.

More impressively, Penn State has dropped only four of its 49 games this season, sweeping all seven of its home opponents this year.

The Nittany Lions have a pair of young outside hitters in freshman Megan Hodge and sophomore Nicole Fawcett – both players have averaged better than 4.5 kills per game to lead their team.

Another young player, sophomore middle blocker Christa Harmotto, averages 3.2 kills per game and leads the nation with a .506 hit percentage.

Minnesota freshman defensive specialist Christine Tan talked about the importance of keeping those players in check during the match.

“We’re going to have to play very solid, especially against the left-side attack (outside hitters Hodge and Fawcett) like we’ve been working on,” she said. “It’s going to be a matter of our backcourt working well with our blockers. It will be a very important part of our game.”

The competition doesn’t get much easier on Sunday against Ohio State (12-2, 2-2). The Buckeyes’ quick style of play has been a major factor in their success this season.

Last week, Ohio State came points away from knocking off ninth-ranked Purdue, losing in five games for its second loss of the season. Its only other loss was to Penn State, a three-game sweep.

Other than those two games, the Buckeyes have been on a tear, making the most of their veteran players. Junior middle blocker Danielle Meyer leads the team with 5.23 kills per game, while junior outside hitter Ami Stevens leads the team with 22 aces on the season and averages over 3.4 digs per game.

Ohio State recently discovered some of its young talent as well, starting freshman outside hitter Anna Szerszen for the past six matches. Szerszen has stepped up for the Buckeyes in that timeframe, contributing 4.4 kills per game since that time.

Senior Kelly Bowman said she was looking forward to the challenge of Ohio State’s offense.

“Ohio State always has a really good team and we can’t underestimate them,” she said. “But I think if we have a good week of practice, we should be ready for them.”

Hartmann to play

Minnesota’s starting setter Rachel Hartmann has been cleared to play this weekend after spraining her right index finger during the match against Michigan State last weekend.