No. 14 Gophers head into conference play on a roll

Gophers junior middle blocker Ariana Filho returns the ball to Dayton September 4 at the Sports Pavillion.

Mark Vancleave

Gophers junior middle blocker Ariana Filho returns the ball to Dayton September 4 at the Sports Pavillion.

Lindsay Guentzel

With the pre-season officially over, the No. 14 Gophers canâÄôt help but look ahead at the path that might lead them back to the Final Four. It isnâÄôt going to be easy, but no one knows that better than the team itself. âÄú[The older players] told me that the road is going to be hard,âÄù freshman Tori Dixon said. âÄúâĦWe need to keep improving and keep on top of our game.âÄù With a record of 10-2, The Gophers open up the Big Ten conference this weekend on the road against Michigan State and No. 22 MichiganâÄîone of the five teams they lost to in the 2009 season. âÄúWe need to play with a great deal of confidence because the conference is, particularly at the top half, very strong this year,âÄù head coach Mike Hebert said. âÄúâĦThe probability is that even the last place team in the conference could win a match against anybody.âÄù The Gophers went 15-5 in the Big Ten last yearâÄîlosing two of those matches to Penn StateâÄîand if the current rankings are any indicator, it looks to be a pretty tough season ahead. There are currently three other Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25 besides MinnesotaâÄîNo. 2 Penn State, No. 9 Illinois, and No. 22 MichiganâÄîwhile Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Purdue also received votes. With 20 conference matches to get through, the Gophers need at least a .500 record in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. They lost to Texas in the semifinals of the Final Four last year and while the team would love to make a return trip, junior Ariana Filho said the team is taking this season one game at a time. âÄúEach year is a new year, each team is a new team,âÄù Filho said. âÄúWe canâÄôt come in with expectations that we are going to go back because there are no guarantees and we donâÄôt know what our conference play will look like.âÄù Hebert said the key to being successful in the strong Big Ten conference play is cutting down mistakes, something the Gophers struggled with in their loss to San Diego. âÄúOur team made some mistakes that are characteristic of young players,âÄù he said. âÄúâĦWe hit a ball out of bounds. We served a ball into the net. We had a net violation in one of our attempts to block. Little things like that that a more veteran team probably wouldnâÄôt have done. Those are the little things weâÄôve got to clean up.âÄù Of the obstacles for the Gophers, two stand out: An inexperienced team featuring three freshmen and five sophomores on the 14-person roster, and the recent loss of their star outside hitter and only remaining senior, Lauren Gibbemeyer. âÄúEach player, whether we are older or not, has to step up a little bit,âÄù Filho said. âÄú[The juniors] are kind of being forced to play the senior role now and I think itâÄôs good for us.âÄù Gibbemeyer, who injured her wrist on Sept. 8, is being treated by the UniversityâÄôs sports medicine department but it will be another week or two before her status is officially known. âÄúItâÄôs some big shoes to fill,âÄù Dixon, an outside hitter, said. âÄúItâÄôs hard because youâÄôre so young but itâÄôs something that is needed for the team. If I just play my game and not let the nerves get to me, we should all be fine.âÄù Opening up conference play without Gibbemeyer in the line-up, Hebert stressed that the younger players need to adjust quickly to playing at the college level. âÄúThese are kids that have never played in front of huge crowds and have never played in any of these Big Ten venues,âÄù he said. âÄúThey are going to have to get seasoned real fast. The ability for them to acclimate to this level of play and the pressure of the Big Ten is really going to be important.âÄù