Gophers can’t top Penn State

by Mark Heise

After an exhilarating win over Ohio State on Friday, the Minnesota volleyball team let its chance to take sole ownership of the conference lead slip through its fingers.

The Gophers’ 12-match winning streak at home ended on Saturday, as No. 2 Penn State rallied to overcome a 2-1 deficit and win 3-2.

Thirty minutes after the loss, senior middle blocker Meredith Nelson still appeared to be upset.

“At this point, we’re pretty disappointed,” she said. “We left everything we had out on the floor and for the most part we controlled the match. It was a tough way to lose.”

The 24th-ranked Ohio State squad rolled into town first, and it didn’t take long for No. 12 Minnesota to finish off the Buckeyes.

The Gophers (16-6 overall, 10-2 Big Ten) took advantage of their strong serving game, using four aces, two from Nelson, to take the first game 30-22.

Ohio State (15-6, 5-6) took the second game to the wire, but Minnesota rode a six-kill performance from senior outside hitter Meghan Cumpston to pick up the 30-28 win.

Game three was a rout from the start, as sophomore outside hitter Kyla Roehrig had four kills on just five attempts to send the Gophers to a 30-19 victory.

Senior libero Malama Peniata recorded 20 digs in the match and played an important role in shutting down the Buckeyes’ scoring threats.

“I was seeing the court well and felt comfortable,” she said. “Everyone knew their role and we were doing a good job of getting into position. Everyone helped out defensively.”

The convincing win over Ohio State wasn’t the story of the night, however, as Penn State (22-1, 11-1) was handed its first loss of the season, dropping three straight games at Wisconsin to send the Gophers into a first-place tie in the Big Ten with the Nittany Lions.

With renewed energy, Minnesota came out strong against Penn State, starting off with an 8-0 run compliments of a strong serving game from Peniata. The Gophers held a five-point lead through most of the game and broke free late for the 30-21 win.

Everything seemed to roll Minnesota’s way in the game, with a perfect example coming on a Peniata ace as she rolled a serve just over the top of the net for one of her two aces.

As well as things went in game one, game two was the exact opposite. Penn State hit .536 to the Gophers’ -.056, and out-blocked Minnesota 4.5-0. The Gophers were struggling in many aspects, as Roehrig, the team leader in kills, set the ball in three-straight points. Penn State won, 30-12.

Junior middle blocker Jessy Jones set the tone for Minnesota in game three, recording three kills and four blocks to lead her team to an important 30-26 game-three win.

The Gophers grabbed a 21-16 lead in game four and barring a complete collapse, Minnesota seemed a sure bet for the upset victory.

Then came the collapse.

The Nittany Lions rattled off an unbelievable 13-3 run to win 30-24 and force a fifth game.

“I think game four is what hurts the most,” Nelson said. “We played well up to the end and then things just didn’t go our way.”

The Gophers committed four hitting errors and a pair of crucial service errors in the fifth game, but still managed to claw their way back from 11-13 to a 13-13 tie.

Penn State’s star freshman outside hitter Megan Hodge finished Minnesota off with a pair of kills and the Gophers’ brief reign atop the Big Ten standings came to an end, 15-13.

Coach Mike Hebert said he was disappointed with the loss, but applauded his team’s effort.

“I thought we put out a great effort and played very well,” he said. “We thought we played hard enough to win, but we didn’t.

Now we have to pick up the pieces and continue to put our best foot forward. The conference race is not over.”