Sweet! Spikers advance in NCAA tournament

Jeff Barthel

Northern Iowa’s volleyball team – the Missouri Valley Conference champions – brought its conference-leading .288 hitting percentage into a second-round NCAA tournament match-up with Minnesota on Saturday night.

The Gophers’ defense, which led the Big Ten in digs and was third in blocks this season, forced Northern Iowa into 17 hitting errors and held the Panthers to a .199 hitting percentage.

The 17th-ranked Gophers (24-10) defeated No. 16 Northern Iowa (28-6) in four sets – 30-25, 28-30, 30-25, 30-23 – and earned themselves a trip to California for the Sweet 16.

Minnesota will play No. 4 Pepperdine on Friday.

“It was another of the series of Minnesota-Northern Iowa matches that was a war,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “(On Saturday), we were very fortunate to get the win.”

Minnesota improved its overall record against Northern Iowa to 13-5; the Gophers also had a 3-1 win over the Panthers on Sept. 17.

“This was a tough, great match between two great teams,” Northern Iowa coach Bobbi Petersen said. “Their defense outplayed us. Out of all the teams we’ve played, Minnesota is definitely one of the best.”

The Gophers lost their last NCAA tournament clash with the Panthers – a five-set (30-26, 26-30, 21-30, 18-30, 15-17) loss Dec. 1, 2001.

This year it was the Gophers who ended Northern Iowa’s season.

The Gophers shut down one particular Northern Iowa player – All-American senior middle blocker Molly O’Brien.

“We had to try to slow down O’Brien,” Hebert said. “I think we did a great job of getting many touches on her.”

By touches, Hebert was referring to balls hit by Gophers’ players that ricocheted off O’Brien – or any Panthers’ player – and resulted in Gophers points.

O’Brien, Northern Iowa’s all-time kills leader (1,795), finished her final season with 491 kills.

After averaging 3.94 kills per game and posting a .284 hitting percentage this season, O’Brien was limited to 14 kills and a .184 hitting percentage in the Panthers’ loss.

“We knew they had a great frontcourt and a big blocking team,” O’Brien said. “We let them get on a lot of runs, and that really hurt us.”

The Gophers had runs of three or more points 10 times in the match – including three 5-0 runs.

Minnesota’s frontcourt play dominated. As a team, the Gophers out-blocked Northern Iowa 14-6.

Meredith Nelson led the Gophers’ blocking attack. The St. Croix Falls, Wis., native had six blocks (three solo, three assists) on the night.

On offense, Minnesota’s Jessica Byrnes tied a career high with 17 kills. Byrnes also had 17 in an Oct. 26, 2002, match against Indiana.

A 2002 Big Ten All-Freshman team selection, Byrnes also posted a team-high .652 hitting percentage Saturday.

“I knew I needed to turn things around,” Byrnes said. “Coach told me I needed to find it in myself and just turn it around.”

Byrnes averaged 2.01 kills per game and posted a .230 hitting percentage through the regular season.

Byrnes was one of four Gophers to post double-figures in kills. Senior All-American Cassie Busse led Minnesota with 18.

“With Jessica putting up big numbers, they weren’t able to focus on one player, and our offense was able to spread things out,” Busse said.

Besides leading her team in kills, Busse – the 2003 Big Ten player of the year – also collected seven digs on the night.

As a team, Minnesota had 70 digs led by sophomore libero Paula Gentil’s 18-dig effort. Junior defensive specialist Lisa Reinhart added 10 and also made a key serve.

The 5-foot-8-inch defensive specialist had a service ace to seal a 30-25 game three victory.

“I just wanted to get in within the line,” Reinhart said. “I wanted to get them thinking and hopefully get (the ball) to land.”

Reinhart’s ace was one of Minnesota’s five service aces -three came from junior Lindsey Taatjes on consecutive points.

“My serving’s been off and on this season,” Taatjes said. “I was just lucky to hit the right seams.”

Taatjes had 26 service aces and 42 errors prior to Saturday’s match.

On Friday, the Gophers accomplished a 30-22, 30-12, 30-16 win over University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in the first round.

It was a match in which Minnesota dominated UW-Green Bay in digs – 66-48 – and also edged the Phoenix in blocks 8-5.

“Defensively is how they impressed me tonight,” UW-Green Bay coach Debbie Kirch said. “I really feel Minnesota is going to go far into the bracket.”

The Gophers offense had 54 kills on the night. Erin Martin led Minnesota with 20.

Martin’s total put her over 400 kills this season. She joined Busse (549) and Trisha Bratford (452) in reaching the 400 kill plateau this year – marking the first time Minnesota has had three players with 400 kills in a season.

Bratford and Martin also had three service aces apiece. As a team, the Gophers recorded a season high of 12 aces.

Junior outside hitter Amanda Cipperly made a rare appearance – playing in her 15th game of the season.

The 5-foot-10-inch native of Andover, Minn., entered Friday’s match at the end of game two.

Immediately responding to her insertion off the bench, Cipperly recorded a kill and service ace for back-to-back points that put Minnesota up 29-11.

The Gophers won game two and cruised to a 30-16 game three win to sew up their three-game Phoenix sweep.