Gophers take to Wolverine State for a pair of weekend road contests

Minnesota was able to beat both Michigan and Michigan State earlier this season at home.

Robert Mews

This weekend’s trip to Michigan will give Minnesota’s volleyball team a chance at contending for a top position in the Big Ten.

The 17th-ranked Gophers (18-5, 8-4 Big Ten) will head to Cliff Keen Arena tonight to face Michigan (10-11, 4-8 Big Ten). Minnesota will follow that match by heading to Michigan State (10-12, 3-9 Big Ten) on Saturday. The Gophers beat both teams earlier this season at the Sports Pavilion.

Minnesota has been fairly successful against both teams on the road. Minnesota leads the all-time series at Michigan, 17-5, and leads the series at Michigan State, 16-8.

But All-American junior setter Kelly Bowman said the previous record on the road isn’t an indication of how well both teams play.

“I think it’s a big challenge because it’s another tough place to play,” Bowman said.

Junior middle blocker Meredith Nelson said part of the reason the match against Michigan will be tough is that they run a “very fast middle attack.”

The Wolverines have one of the better hitters in the conference in outside hitter Katie Brudzinski. The sophomore has 4.03 kills a game this season.

However, the Gophers shut her down in the teams’ last meeting. But coach Mike Hebert said he doesn’t like to use the phrase “shut down.”

“Sometimes a person just doesn’t have a good match, and on their own, shuts themselves down,” Hebert said.

While Hebert said he doesn’t always try to pinpoint one player on opposing teams, he has been stressing the importance of playing better defense as of late.

“If you accomplish those kinds of things, winning takes care of its self,” Hebert said.

On the offensive side, the Gophers are improving as well.

Junior outside hitter Meghan Cumpston is coming off matches against Iowa and Indiana in which she nailed down 10 or more kills. Against both teams, the Gophers hit for .287 and .389, respectively.

Nelson and Hebert said that type of performance is needed against Michigan State, which plays a “scrappy defense.”

“They dug a lot of balls that we thought would have been killed against any other team,” Nelson said.

In the early season match against the Spartans, Nelson killed 10 balls and led Minnesota with a .450 hitting percentage.

Michigan State also has a quality outside hitter with Katie Johnson.

“She is their X-factor,” Hebert said about the sophomore. “She’s a tall, big, physical horse that can hit the snot out of the ball.”

Johnson is second in the Big Ten with 5.27 kills per game.

Bowman said she was “really impressed” with Michigan State in the last match.

“Nobody thought they would be very good,” Hebert said. “But they’ve been playing very competitively.”

Michigan State is playing competitively. Out of its nine conference losses, four went five games and two went four games.

“I would imagine they’re better than when we played them last time,” Hebert said.