Michigan toughest Big Ten test yet

by Mark Heise

If there were one Big Ten team the Minnesota volleyball squad would be anxious to play after last season’s near miss of a conference title, it would have to be Michigan.

After losing to the Wolverines late in the season last year, the Gophers (10-3 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) will get their chance for redemption Sunday as they host Michigan at 1 p.m. at the Sports Pavilion.

“It’s definitely a game we’ve been looking forward to, especially the veterans,” senior middle blocker Jessy Jones said. “They’re the reason we weren’t tied for first place in the conference last year, so it’s always going to be a game that we’re ready to play. I’m really excited to play them.”

The No. 11 Wolverines (13-1, 1-1) went undefeated during the nonconference portion of the season, sneaking past Hawaii, No. 10 at the time, in five games. But Michigan has already lost a conference match, dropping its most recent contest to No. 9 Wisconsin after getting swept in three games.

Minnesota meanwhile, is riding a six-match win streak, including sweeping three consecutive conference opponents to help add to the momentum.

“With this momentum and the confidence we have from winning these last three games, I think they will really help us,” sophomore libero Christine Tan said. “They’re a beatable team as long as we keep playing the way we have. We just have to come out and play at the level we’re capable of playing at.”

Michigan has proven to be a strong offensive team in the past, and this year should be no exception. The Wolverines are led by senior outside hitter Kate Bruzdzinski, who is averaging more than four kills per game so far this season.

Junior middle blocker Beth Karpiak has complemented Bruzdzinski’s hitting from the outside, contributing 3.33 kills per game from the middle of the court to go along with a .445 hitting percentage and 1.08 blocks per game.

“They’re pretty balanced in their attack, you can’t just try to stop one person,” coach Mike Hebert said of Michigan. “They’re pretty similar to us. We’re going to have to cut down on our hitting errors and control the ball a little better than we did (against Iowa). Those will be the keys to the match.”

Minnesota will counter Bruzdzinski with junior outside hitter Kyla Roehrig and freshman outside hitter Brook Dieter, while staking Jones and freshman middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer against Karpiak.

Dieter and Roehrig have combined this year to average 8.24 kills per game and a .270 hit percentage from the left side.

Jones and Gibbemeyer have shored up the middle blocker position, combining for 5.39 kills per game and a .316 hitting percentage, not to mention 2.62 blocks per game.

But despite the strong numbers, Hebert still spoke about Michigan with caution.

“Michigan seems to be playing very well this season, and I think we’re still a little bit of a question mark,” he said. “We’ll have to see if we can’t answer some of those question marks about both teams on Sunday.”