The 25th-ranked Gophers women’s volleyball team probably glanced at the schedule in early September and prayed this weekend’s matchup could somehow be erased. But the team’s search for a higher calling failed, forcing Minnesota (16-9 overall, 6-8 in the Big Ten) to hit the road.
Minnesota plays at Ohio State on Friday and must be refreshed in time to take on No. 2 Penn State on Saturday. Somehow Gophers coach Mike Hebert squeezed a positive from the impossible.
“I think of the two matches, Ohio State is the one that we are playing for,” Hebert said. “Realistically, and I can say this, we won’t beat Penn State. We don’t want to bring that loss into the Ohio State matchup.”
On its home court, Minnesota fared well against the two teams. The Gophers fell 3-0 to Penn State in their season opener, but rebounded the following night to beat Ohio State 3-1.
Ohio State (12-12 overall, 5-10 in the Big Ten) was ranked 14th at the time, but the then 22nd-ranked Gophers stunned the Buckeyes. Sophomore outside hitter Nicole Branagh landed 22 kills and freshman middle blocker Stephanie Hagen recorded a .545 hitting percentage.
Since the loss came early in the Big Ten race, the Buckeyes didn’t panic. But with the end of the conference season looming, Ohio State coach Jim Stone is disappointed with the team’s tumble.
“I didn’t expect our record to be what it is,” Stone said. “But I also know that we have certain weaknesses and we tried to slide by without them becoming huge factors. They became factors.”
Stone blamed his team’s downfall to “a multitude of lineup changes.” Two starters — sophomore middle blocker Brianne Spires, who has been out since the beginning of league play, and sophomore outside hitter Angelee Abbring — will watch this weekend’s match from the bench.
“Ohio State all season has been going through constant lineup changes,” Hebert said. “It’s difficult to know what to expect. It doesn’t allow you to prepare with any certainty.”
Minnesota knows what to expect Friday, however. Penn State (25-0, 15-0) remains undefeated, making the dream of an upset unrealistic. But still Hebert considered the meaning of such a feat.
“It would attract national attention,” Hebert said. “It would fire us up.”
The last time the two met, Penn State showed why it deserved the then-No. 1 ranking. As a team, the Lions recorded a .372 attack percentage while holding the Gophers to an ice-cold .098.
Most of Penn State’s matches have been as lopsided. Despite this commanding presence, Lions coach Russ Rose said the team suits up for practice every day.
“We work on the same things everybody else does,” Rose said. “At the beginning of the season I don’t think you ever know for sure how good you are going to be. You also have higher opinions of the other teams.”
While the Lions have experienced endless success this season and the Gophers have flopped around looking to build a winning streak, the veteran Rose spoke highly of the Gophers’ season.
“Mike and I have coached against each other for 20 years,” Rose said. “I think highly of Mike’s team and how he’s put a touch on the program.”
The Gophers coach headed to practice this week, giving his team reasons why a boycott of this weekend should be avoided.
“I think you tell your team, number one, it is a great opportunity to measure yourself against the best. It’s not only a chance to measure your skills, but also your competitiveness,” Hebert said. “And two, history is recorded with great upsets.”