They’ll take it: Gophers win 9th straight match

by Brian Stensaas

As is customary following Minnesota volleyball matches, the team circles around the Sports Pavilion court with fans and sways to the tune of “Hail Minnesota.”

But Wednesday night, though the Gophers defeated Iowa in straight sets and extended their winning streak to nine matches, there were no extra exuberant smiles or added glee from players during the traditional postgame ceremony.

They won sloppily, and they knew it.

“We were very quiet and tentative,” junior Erin Martin said. “It feels good to win, but not like this.”

No. 23 Minnesota (16-7, 9-2 Big Ten) chipped away a 30-18, 30-23, 31-29 win over the lowly Hawkeyes (5-16, 0-11), but it was hard to find a satisfied team member, despite now holding sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.

Coach Mike Hebert expressed concern about his team’s play, especially with No. 20 Wisconsin coming to town Friday night.

“You never turn down a win within the Big Ten,” Hebert said. “But we didn’t play with a keen sense of accountability. You have to play consistent if you want to win a championship, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

While not at their best, the Gophers were aided by players who haven’t seen much of the court in recent matches.

Freshman Athena Mallakis found out less than four hours before the match that she would start at middle blocker. She joined senior Erin Lorenzen in the starting lineup – the two had played in a combined 10 games all season.

Both played the entire match Wednesday.

Hebert said the two have practiced solidly the last few weeks and deserved the playing time. Mallakis, hampered with a nagging knee injury for years, said she felt fine against Iowa and was excited to get into the lineup.

“It felt good to be in there,” Mallakis said. “I’ve worked really hard to get in. And (playing) gave me some added motivation and confidence.”

Mallakis finished with eight kills and eight blocking assists – both career highs.

As for Lorenzen, a tri-captain, assisting to a Big Ten win was something she wanted.

“It was nice to get in again and contribute,” she said. “It wasn’t just getting the team ready (in warm-ups), I was getting myself ready to play.”

Lorenzen finished with a season-high nine kills, including the match-clincher.

Martin led the Gophers with 16 kills and a pair of service aces. Junior Trisha Bratford chipped in 14 kills and hit .379 on the match.

Senior standout Cassie Busse, the reigning national player of the week, started and nabbed four kills in the first game before sitting out the rest of the match. Hebert said he was giving Busse a rest after her monster 30-kill match against No. 22 Michigan State last weekend.