Badgers loss could be key for spikers chance at conference championship

by Brian Stensaas

A group of about 35 Minnesota volleyball players, coaches and boosters scattered around tables at a West Lafayette, Ind. restaurant last Saturday night.
But rather than concentrate on their appetites after a 3-0 win over Purdue, all eyes were on a member of Minnesota media relations who sat on a cell phone with press row at Rec Hall in State College, PA.
The Nittany Lions and Wisconsin were in a decisive fifth game. As soon as word came through the Badgers lost to Penn State — putting them in a tie with the Gophers for the Big Ten conference lead — coach Mike Hebert raised his hands in celebration and a huge roar erupted.
“I think we startled the hell out of the restaurant people and other patrons,” Hebert joked. “There were glasses tinkling and things falling. It was our joy in learning that if we win four matches, we know we will at least share the Big Ten championship.”
At 14-2 in the Big Ten, eighth-ranked Minnesota and No. 6 Wisconsin can tie for the conference title should both teams win out. However, one loss for either squad all but puts the final nail in the coffin, erasing any hopes at donning a championship ring.
After starting the Big Ten campaign 0-3, Penn State has rebounded to sport a 12-4 record and a slim chance at bumping up from third to a tie for the lead.
One team in the hunt all season but now dragging behind is Ohio State. The Buckeyes dropped two crucial matches to Michigan and Michigan State last weekend, falling to fourth place at 11-5.
As to which team has any sort of so-called “advantage” in the last two weekends, Hebert said a slim edge would go to the Badgers.
Wisconsin takes on Illinois and Purdue (a combined 7-25 in the Big Ten) at the Field House this weekend before heading to Michigan to take on the Wolverines and Spartans to close out the regular season.
Minnesota deals with the Michigan teams — both improved teams according to Hebert — this weekend at the Sports Pavilion before heading on the road to take on Iowa and No. 17 Ohio State.
“I’ll be surprised if Wisconsin loses any more matches,” Hebert said. “Our remaining four matches rank a little higher in terms of difficulty than theirs.”
Ailing but able
After being out the last three weeks with a sprained wrist, defensive specialist Kelli Wicks was cleared to practice Tuesday. All members of the team are now available for play, but not without some notable knicks.
Defensive specialist Lisa Axel will rest this week with a reoccurring lower leg injury. Middle blocker Charnette Fair continues to have knee problems, but both players are expected to play this weekend.
At the top
Five of the six statistical categories the Big Ten keeps for individual play are led by Minnesota players.
Nicole Branagh and Lindsey Berg lead the core. Branagh is at the top of the conference in kills (5.95) and digs (3.95) per game. Berg is at the top in service aces (.60) and assists (15) per game. Stephanie Hagen is also leading in hitting percentage with a 3.77 clip.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]