Volleyball team wins two

Brian Stensaas

Following Friday night’s volleyball match with Michigan, Minnesota captain Lindsey Berg visited with Wolverines defensive specialist Cobey Shoji. Both are graduates of Punahou High School in Honolulu, Hawaii now playing volleyball in the Big Ten and chatted like no competition had just taken place.
But on the court this weekend at the Sports Pavilion the mood was anything but friendly, it was hardly pretty and until the fourth game Saturday night, it certainly wasn’t motivating.
“We got out-hit and out-blocked, but the only number that matters right now is the one in the win column,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said after the Gophers out-dueled Michigan State 15-13, 10-15, 16-14, 15-8 Saturday. “These matches from now on are all playoff matches.”
Hebert couldn’t have put it any better. With Wisconsin winning both of its matches this weekend on the road, the Badgers and Gophers continue to be tied; now at 16-2 in the Big Ten good for a share of the conference lead. Both teams are just two match wins away from sharing the Big Ten title.
The 16 conference wins is an all-time best for Minnesota and brings its overall record to 26-2, tying last season’s overall win mark.
With a record of 9-8 heading into Saturday night’s tilt with Minnesota, Michigan State was playing for little more than pride.
But from the first serve, the Spartans showed they were capable to run with the big dogs. However in the end, it was Minnesota with more bite.
Michigan State opened up a 10-5 lead in the first game thanks mostly to its superior blocking play on the net. The Gophers also had trouble with the blocking opposition in Friday’s 16-14, 15-10, 15-13 win over Michigan.
“Friday and Saturday were worlds apart as far as our efforts on execution,” Hebert said of the blocks. “Against Michigan, we didn’t cover the ball well. The blocking (Saturday) by Michigan State was earned by them. They were phenomenal.”
And it wasn’t just the blocks. Michigan State was quick to set Erin Hartley early and often throughout the match, but she was outdone by her Minnesota counterpart. Or rather, four of them.
Nicole Branagh (28), Yvonne VanOort (22), Stephanie Hagen (17) and Charnette Fair (12) all hit for double digits in kills against the Spartans, pacing the Minnesota offense.
With the match tied at one game apiece, the Spartans rallied from a 6-2 defecit in the third to attempt three times for game point. VanOort — whose 22 kills were a season high — and Branagh took over, smacking kills and coming up with huge blocks to keep Minnesota alive.
Berg finished with a season-high seven aces, one better than her previous best this season, ironically against Michigan State.
No matter how hard the ball was hit Friday night, it seemed as though Michigan stopped it. And while the Gophers eked out a 3-0 victory, things weren’t jelling.
“We gave Michigan way too many blocks by not covering,” Berg said. “We weren’t disciplined at all in covering. That’s me. . . that’s everyone. (Friday) our game was not 100 percent.”
So, perfect or not, the Gophers need just two more wins to claim their first-ever conference title. And while an overall satisfying match is nice, Minnesota proved it is not necessary to get the job done.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]