Minnesota closes out home season with must-win games

Mark Heise

Heading into the final weeks of the regular season, the Minnesota volleyball team’s postseason chances are still in doubt.

But after breaking through with a pair of big road wins last weekend, the Gophers are in a much better position as they host Michigan State and Northwestern at the Sports Pavilion tonight and Saturday, respectively. Each game begins at 7 p.m.

Minnesota (15-11 overall, 8-8 Big Ten) lost to both teams on the road during a tough streak, but freshman Brook Dieter said the team would be focused on not repeating that mistake.

“We have to come out focused in practice this week, because we need these two wins at home,” she said. “I think we all know that, and we’ll have a good week of practice and get through this weekend.”

This weekend consists of two teams sharing time in the bottom half of the conference. Michigan State and Northwestern have both shown the ability to hang with the tougher teams in the Big Ten, but have not held any semblance of consistency.

Michigan State (16-12, 7-9) knocked off ninth-ranked Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota with a strong offensive attack this season, but lost to Northwestern, Ohio State and Illinois.

In the same light, Northwestern (16-11, 7-9) topped Minnesota and Michigan, and took Wisconsin to five games despite losing, but fell to both Indiana and Illinois during a seven-match losing streak earlier this season.

Considering both these teams have gone through the same type of season Minnesota has, coach Mike Hebert said his team’s success would once again lie on the Gophers side of the net.

“Whatever emotional wave we caught, we’re going to have to stay on that wave and not fall,” Hebert said. “There really isn’t much we’re going to teach them tactically this week, so it’s really going to be a matter of game-readiness.”

The Spartans are led by hard-hitting senior outside hitters Katie Johnson and Ashley Schatzle, who are averaging over 4.4 kills per game apiece. Minnesota failed to stop either hitter its first time out against the Spartans, leading to the loss.

“After looking at our last match against Michigan State, it was apparent that we didn’t do a whole lot of blocking or digging,” Hebert said. “That’s going to have to change.”

Northwestern holds a more balanced offense, and looks to its defense for success, with three different players averaging more than a block per game. Sophomore libero Kate Nobilio leads the team with 5.66 digs per game, as the Wildcats average nearly a half-dig per game more than the Gophers.

But Northwestern might be at a disadvantage, coming into the Pavilion on senior night against an Illinois native.

Senior middle blocker Jessy Jones said playing against some old high school rivals, combined with her last chance to play at home, would be a spark for her Saturday night.

“I’m definitely excited, because I’ve played against half of them forever,” she said. “They’re from my hometown and they’re coming into my building on my senior night; I think they’re going to get worked.”