No. 3 Penn State awaits Minnesota

The Gophers’ second Big Ten road trip this season will not be an easy one.

Mark Heise

With four conference wins already under its belt, the Minnesota volleyball team will face its biggest competition of the Big Ten season this weekend, and possibly do it without one of its top players.

Senior middle blocker Jessy Jones might still be unable to play after spraining her left ankle last week, sending the Gophers in a little short-handed as they travel to face Ohio State Friday at 5 p.m. and head to State College, Pa. on Saturday to face No. 3 Penn State at 7 p.m.

“I don’t think we’ve really sat down and thought about it,” junior setter Rachel Hartmann said of Jones’ situation. “We’re still going to be focusing on the game and not look too much into that. If Jessy makes it on the court somehow, that’d be awesome.

“If she doesn’t, we’ll just have to make some changes and work with what we have. It’ll still be a great game this weekend,” Hartman said.

Minnesota (11-3 Overall, 4-0 Big Ten) will open the weekend against Ohio State on Friday, a team that has had its share of ups and downs.

The Buckeyes (7-6, 1-3) played very strong at the start of the season, losing a close five-game match against fourth-ranked USC, but had a disappointing start to the conference season, dropping matches to Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern in the last two weeks.

Ohio State’s recent struggles are something sophomore outside hitter Rachelle Hagerty said the Gophers plan to ignore.

“It’s kind of the same as us when we got our butts kicked by California,” she said. “Every team has good days and bad days, so we just need to go into this weekend not looking at those bad days; you have to treat them like they’re at the top.”

The Buckeyes’ typically strong defense has allowed opposing teams to hit .251 in the last two weeks; nearly 60 points more than teams facing Ohio State in the first four weeks of the season.

In order for the Buckeyes to be successful, they will need strong offensive performances from their senior leadership in middle blocker Danielle Meyer, who is averaging 4.16 kills per game with a .310 hitting percentage, and outside hitter Briana McCarthy, who has been contributing 3.09 kills per game with a .279 hitting percentage.

“All I’m thinking about is Ohio State right now,” coach Mike Hebert said. “The fact of the matter is, three weeks ago they played unbelievably well against USC. And I’m going to assume that team will be the team that shows up. If they do, it’s going to be one heck of a match.”

Following the Buckeyes is some of the toughest competition Minnesota could play this year. Penn State (12-2, 4-0) is one of the other three Big Ten teams to remain undefeated in conference play this season, and has only lost two matches in non-conference play. The Nittany Lions were swept by top-ranked Nebraska, and lost in five games to No. 2 Stanford while playing one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the NCAA.

Penn State has plenty of weapons, including three players averaging three kills per game or higher.

Junior outside hitter Nicole Fawcett leads the team, averaging 4.59 kills per game, while sophomore outside hitter Megan Hodge records 4.48 kills per game. Junior middle blocker Christa Harmotto averages 3.06 kills while hitting .498 for the team.

“I don’t think anybody in the Big Ten can match up with Penn State physically,” Hebert said. “They’re just that much superior, athlete-wise, to anybody in the conference. But that’s why games are played, to see who wins.

“We aren’t going to Penn State to get beat up on. We’ve done well there in the past, and we expect to do well again. How do you do it? They have to feel our will to win somehow. That’s the most important thing right now.”