Title picture not much clearer after weekend split

Minnesota lost to Penn State on Friday before beating Ohio State on Sunday.

by Kent Erdahl

Halfway through Minnesota’s volleyball team’s weekend matches against No. 6 Penn State and No. 7 Ohio State at the Sports Pavilion, Gophers coach Mike Hebert looked frustrated and didn’t bother disguising it.

Coming off a four-game loss to the Lions – Minnesota’s second-straight and third overall loss of the conference season – Hebert pointed back to his prediction that the conference champion would finish the Big Ten season with a 17-3 record.

“We’ve accumulated our three losses,” Hebert said. “I think we would have to run the table to win it or tie for it.”

The statement posed a daunting challenge with Ohio State coming in the next night. But Minnesota’s (22-4, 11-3 Big Ten) players responded in time, disposing of Ohio (22-2, 12-2) in four games Saturday and keeping its conference hopes alive.

A total of 9,437 people attended the pair of matches – 4,406 against Penn State and 5,031 against Ohio State.

The difference in the Gophers’ play from Friday to Saturday was startling. In the loss Friday, Minnesota often looked out of sync, struggling with everything from passing to setting to hitting.

The Gophers hit just .171 with 35 errors that were often the result of a misguided pass or a badly-timed set.

“In terms of execution, it was one of our poorest efforts of the year,” Hebert said. “I was very surprised at how often we broke down.”

Things got so bad during game two that Hebert did something drastic. He pulled last week’s American Volleyball Coaches Association player of the week, Kelly Bowman, from the game in favor of her older sister, Jen Bowman, who has played sparingly this year.

The elder Bowman sparked Minnesota to a win in game three. But after the Lions put the match away in game four, even she said she was surprised to replace her sister.

“That hasn’t happened at all,” Jen Bowman said. “It did feel odd, but I just tried to come in and make a difference and bring some energy to the court.”

For all of the Gophers’ uncharacteristic struggles against Penn State (21-2, 11-2) on Friday, they were that much better Saturday.

Minnesota relied on its typically stingy defense – led by Paula Gentil’s 28 digs and Erin Martin’s five solo blocks – to frustrate Ohio.

As on Friday, the difference in the game came in mistakes and miscommunications by the losing team.

But this time it wasn’t the Gophers’ problem.

“They did a better job than we did at keeping the ball in play,” Ohio State coach Jim Stone said. “They showed their veteran savvy, and, at times, we showed our inexperience.”

Minnesota’s savvy was apparent in its handling of NCAA player of the year candidate Stacey Gordon. Despite a match-high 10 kills in game four, the Gophers won the game and held her to a .253 attack percentage for the match.

After coming back from a disappointing loss and winning a close match against the other top conference team, Hebert was just as open to disclosing his feelings about the game on Saturday.

“It was a tremendous win for us,” Hebert said. “As disorganized as we appeared (Friday), I thought (Saturday) we were playing with a great deal of chemistry and discipline.”

Now, with their three losses and three toughest competitors – the Badgers being the third of the three – behind them, the Gophers will need that chemistry and a little help from their foes for a chance at the Big Ten title.