Volleyball gets mixed bag in Hawaii

When the curtain fell last year on the Minnesota volleyball season, the Gophers found themselves out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.
This weekend the team was in Hawaii for the University of Hawaii Wahine Classic, searching for a rainbow that would lead them to a successful season and a trip back to the NCAA championships.
But the path back couldn’t have been much tougher for the Gophers (2-2), who faced off against three strong teams, including fourth-ranked Hawaii and No. 10 UCLA.
Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said the matches would test the character of his young team.
“We want to find out who we are,” Hebert said. “What our identity will be.”
Nicole Branagh, a junior outside hitter, said playing top-10 teams should help the Gophers improve.
“We keep taking steps toward getting better,” Branagh said. “We want to be on top.”
The team discovered they were good, but not quite good enough Sunday night. Minnesota suffered a heartbreaking five-game loss to UCLA (2-0), 9-15, 11-15, 16-14, 15-5, 15-9.
After winning the first two games, the Gophers had two match points that would have given them the sweep. But the team failed on its golden opportunities, and UCLA capitalized on the momentum shift to rally and win the match.
Branagh led the Gophers effort with 21 kills and 20 digs, and Lisa Aschenbrenner doubled her career high from the night before with 18 kills. Yvonne Wichert contributed with 17 digs, while Stephanie Hagen led the team with six blocks.
Hebert said the Gophers worked on building team confidence, but after a disappointing performance like the one to the Bruins, it can be lost.
“(Confidence) can be erased in a second,” he said. “It takes a long time to recapture it.”
The Gophers were showing signs of confidence prior to the UCLA match. Minnesota dominated Pittsburgh in the sandwich game of the tournament, sweeping the Panthers (1-3) 15-8, 15-10, 15-1.
The Gophers jumped out to an early 10-1 lead before cruising in the first game. Minnesota rolled through the final two games, with Pittsburgh failing to mount a serious challenge.
Lindsey Berg led the Gophers to a .305 hitting percentage with 33 assists. Branagh had 12 kills, while Aschenbrenner contributed with nine kills. The sister duo of Linda and Susan Shudlick sparked the Gophers defense with eight blocks and 10 digs respectively.
Friday night the team was overmatched by the tournament host Hawaii (3-0). The Rainbows swept the Gophers 15-13, 15-4, 15-6. Minnesota committed 26 costly errors in the loss.
When they weren’t beating themselves, Hawaii’s defense held the Gophers to a minuscule .058 hitting percentage.
Hebert blamed the loss on poor team passing, and he said the team needs to improve on ball control in order to be successful.
“The season will rise and fall on passing and ball control,” Hebert said. “When we pass well, we play well.”
The Gophers will play Drake in home opener Wednesday night at the Sports Pavilion. First serve is at 7 p.m.

John Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]