At first glance, the Minnesota volleyball schedule had one eye-catching early-season game.
Scrambled somewhere between two unranked foes, the 10th-ranked Gophers were to lock horns with No. 11 Pacific in this weekend’s Georgia Tech Classic.
The Tigers would bring experience and power to the court, not to mention the intimidation factor of being a final four team a year ago.
But all was forgotten when the teams took to the court Saturday in Atlanta. It was Minnesota looking like the experienced team, and the Tigers left shaking their heads as the Gophers won a convincing 15-10, 16-14, 15-9 match, taking the Classic crown in the process.
“This was a weekend for us to put up or shut up,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “I think now I am able to declare that we are a legitimate team.”
Pacific never led by more than one point. The closest the Tigers came to building a substantial lead was in the opening game. The two teams traded lead changes seven times in the first contest, battling to a 10-10 lock before Yvonne Van Oort served the final five points, sealing the game with a last-point ace.
The second and third games were played to a much different tune. Both featured big runs early, and both saw Minnesota withstanding Pacific rallies to win.
In the second game, Minnesota started out with an 11-5 post before Pacific rallied back to take a 14-13 lead. In the end, a hitting error by the Tigers gave Minnesota the win. The miscue was one of nine committed by Pacific in the game.
The third game would mirror the second. The Gophers jumped out to an 8-2 lead before allowing Pacific to tie the game at nine. Once again, Van Oort came up big, serving the final six points and securing a sweep of the Tigers.
“Pacific is a very difficult team to beat,” Hebert said. “We did what we could to eliminate our errors and played well in every area.”
Minnesota also did its job by containing Pacific’s big guns.
Returning outside hitter Jamie Hamm averaged 1.33 kills a game going into this season and was held without a kill in the entire match. Kara Gormsen averaged 11.28 assists per game and totalled just 30.
“We were mentally controlled for that match,” team captain Lindsey Berg said. “Every match we play, we become more familiar with each other. We can be something better, but it is exciting where we’re at right now.”
Berg also said that there was little nervousness before the match and that the team was excited to play a higher-caliber opponent.
The Gophers kept their composure and fought back in the other matches on the weekend.
In the tournament opener Friday night, Minnesota swept Coastal Carolina 15-7, 15-7, 15-13. The Gophers relied on their younger core for the win, sitting starters Nicole Branagh, Charnette Fair and Stephanie Hagen for two games each. Freshman Cassie Busse played all three games and chipped in nicely with six kills and nine digs.
Saturday’s match with unbeaten host Georgia Tech took a little more effort.
After coasting through the first two games 15-7, 15-1, the wheels fell off for the Gophers. The Yellow Jackets handed Minnesota a 15-3 loss — the first game the Gophers have dropped on the season — snapping a streak of 17 straight. The Gophers mustered just nine total kills in 34 attempts.
But the mechanic was in the building. Coming back strong, Minnesota took the fourth game 15-8 to cement the win.
“We snapped out of it pretty quick,” Berg said. “Things didn’t go well for us in that game. We knew we could do better.”
Berg was named the tournament’s MVP for her performance. She led the offense with 102 assists and nine service aces. Berg also chimed in on defense with 34 digs. Van Oort and Fair joined Berg on the all-tournament team.
Minnesota is a perfect 7-0 on the season and will next see action on Wednesday. The Gophers will meet Northern Iowa halfway in a match played in Rochester.
Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]