No. 1 Minnesota gets set to play host to duo of Michigan foes

The Gophers' Big Ten opener begins a new portion of the season, after an 11-1 start.

Kent Erdahl

For Minnesota’s top-ranked volleyball team, this weekend can be explained simply. One big nonconference season down, one Big Ten season to go.

On Monday, the Gophers finished the last of their nonconference matches with a 3-0 sweep of Cincinnati. During the nonconference season, Minnesota disposed of four of five ranked opponents, emerged with an 11-1 record and captured its first No. 1 ranking ever.

The Gophers will kick off their Big Ten schedule at the Sports Pavilion this weekend with 7 p.m. matches against Michigan State and Michigan today and Saturday, respectively.

But the Gophers aren’t exactly flying high because they carry the No. 1 ranking into one of the, historically, toughest and unpredictable conferences in the nation. Coach Mike Hebert said they feel the opposite.

“There will be no upper-hand,” Hebert said. “Of all my years in the Big Ten, when somebody has a high ranking or some attention coming into the (Big Ten) season, all that means is the other teams are licking their chops to try to beat you. They salivate with anticipation.”

Hebert and the returning members of last year’s team know a little something about losing that upper hand.

Last season, the Gophers were predicted to win the conference, but the team lost its opening matches, and eventually the title, to Penn State.

“It’s a little like flying through turbulence,” Hebert said. “No one knows what to expect. We think we know who we are and what we have, but you really don’t know until your opening conference weekend.”

The Gophers are playing much better so far this season than they were at this time a year ago, but the same can be said for almost the entire Big Ten.

The conference has posted a combined record of 85-25, and four teams are ranked in the USA Today/CSTV Top-25 – Minnesota, Penn State (4), Illinois (13) and Ohio State (20).

“There seem to be seven or eight teams that are capable of contending for the championship,” Hebert said. “And I say that in a serious way.”

Michigan State and Michigan both fit into the category of contenders, which is why the Gophers welcome the opportunity to open in front of a friendly crowd.

“It’s always really exciting to open your first weekend at home for the Big Ten,” middle blocker Jessica Byrnes said. “Michigan and Michigan State have always been really good teams, but it’s just always been a great weekend for us.”

The Spartans (5-3) held the No. 4 spot in the Big Ten preseason poll before dropping three straight matches recently.

The Wolverines (9-1) were close to cracking the top 25 last week, and a win against the Gophers would almost surely put them in the rankings.

Whether or not the Gophers can survive the early test, sophomore Kelly Bowman said, she is simply looking forward to the next chapter in Minnesota’s season.

“It’s going to be a very tough conference, and I’m just excited to get it going again,” Bowman said.