NCAA bid uncertain for spikers after being swept at home

Brian Hall

Near the end of game three Friday, Minnesota’s volleyball team attempted to mount a comeback against No. 12 Ohio State.

Normally a starter, senior Kathy Tilson stood on the sideline because of back spasms that forced her to miss five of the nine games over the weekend.

Watching her replacements struggle as the team battled to force a fourth game against the Buckeye, tears began dripping from her eyes.

Tilson embodied the desire and emotion the team has used to fuel its best volleyball of the season over the past few weeks.

“I couldn’t be out there,” Tilson said. “I really wanted to be and I wanted us to win so bad. I am trying to go as much as I can, but I was having trouble passing. The game got close, we won and I was so excited. We played with a lot of heart and we played hard.”

A combined crowd of 5,362 people watched Minnesota (18-12, 10-10 Big Ten) narrowly lose to Ohio State in four games (30-26, 30-24, 32-34, 30-27) and No. 16 Penn State in five games (30-20, 30-26, 27-30, 28-30, 18-16) at the Sports Pavilion.

The two matches posted the second and third largest attendance marks this season and provided the spark the Gophers missed much of the season – emotion.

But Minnesota was plagued by a season-long Achilles heel, its passing. The Gophers opponents registered 25 total service aces in the two matches.

Penn State (21-7, 14-6) won the first two games of Saturday’s match before Minnesota rallied. Yet, the Gophers won the next two games to force game five.

In the fifth, Minnesota missed two chances at match point. Penn State also squandered an opportunity, but the Lions put it away on their second chance.

“We had it right there and were battling through a heartbreaker,” senior Stephanie Hagen said. “You just had the feeling we were going to win and then it broke your heart.”

Hagen recorded 21 kills with only one error to hit .476 while digging 11 balls and providing a team-high seven blocks.

Senior Lindsey Berg paced the Gophers offense to a .264 hitting percentage with 65 assists. She added 16 digs.

The only disparity on the final statistics sheet was service aces where the Lions held a 15-2 advantage.

“We struggled again passing the ball,” coach Mike Hebert said. “That is the difference in the match. Otherwise I think we outplay Penn State tonight and come up with the win. We just could not get our passing game together again, and it has all season long been the reason we have struggled.”

“I think our problem was the communication early on. We had balls falling between people. We were as quiet as we have been lately,” Berg said.

Against Ohio State (25-3, 17-3) game one was tied at 22, when Buckeyes freshman Stacey Gordon stepped up to the service line and delivered six straight points, including two aces, to earn the win.

“The serving run by Gordon was costly,” Hebert said. “We freaked out a little bit. She hits a fine jump serve. We emotionally lost it for a few moments there and it was just enough to cost out the game.”

In the third game Minnesota stopped two Ohio State match points before forcing a fourth game.

The fourth game was another tight affair. The score was knotted at 25, but the Buckeyes outscored the Gophers 5-3 and won on a combined block of a Trisha Bratford kill attempt.

“I was awfully proud of the effort and the fight,” Hebert said. “We knew the team had it in them. The players knew, the coaches knew, it was just a matter of when it would surface.”

Sophomore Cassie Busse led Minnesota in kills with 16 while Bratford added a career-high 15.

“Whenever we got down and got a little flat, it was because of our passing game,” Berg said Friday. “When we are in the game and playing emotionally, we play much better. We are really peaking these last few weeks and I think we will be a scary team to play in the tournament.”

The 64-team field for the NCAA Volleyball Championships will be selected Monday and the Gophers are expected to earn an at-large bid.

“That all erases,” Berg said. “Anything can happen when it comes to the tournament. Nothing in the past matters anymore and we just have to take one match at a time.”