Volleyball opens Big Ten with rare pair of wins

The Minnesota Twins won 90 games, George Bush was still in office and crystal Pepsi was sweeping the nation.
It was 1992, also known as the last time Minnesota’s volleyball team opened the Big Ten season 2-0.
That year, the Gophers went 25-12 and advanced to the semis of the National Invitation Volleyball Tournament, similar to the NIT tournament for men’s basketball.
So if starting off the conference season with a 2-0 record is a key to postseason success for Minnesota, the team got a huge boost this weekend.
After the Gophers upset 15th-ranked Wisconsin 14-16, 15-9, 15-7, 15-9 on Friday night, they swept through Purdue on Saturday night 15-8, 15-5, 15-13.
Minnesota coach Mike Hebert was quick to point out that conference success boils down to holding down the fort.
“If you are going to do well in this conference, you have got to take care of business at your own home,” said Hebert.
Minnesota did just that this weekend, with great blocking and solid passing.
“We didn’t come into this season thinking that we were going to be the greatest blocking team in the world,” Hebert said. “All of a sudden, we are one of the best blocking teams in the conference.”
Minnesota out blocked their opponents 37-24 this weekend. Hebert was especially impressed with their showing against Wisconsin.
“To out block Wisconsin 20-18 is unheard of. Minnesota has not been known as a blocking team,” Hebert said.
While the Gophers were blocking their opponents’ kill attempts, Minnesota was knocking down most of their own.
Steady Nicole Branagh led the Minnesota attack with 55 kills in the two matches, while Yvonne Wichert added 30. Twenty of Wichert’s came in a season-high effort against Wisconsin.
And while blocking and spiking were crucial to the wins, it was help off the bench that keyed the two match sweep. Substitutions haven’t been common the past couple years for the Gophers, but if things follow the course laid this weekend, there will be much more.
Hebert said it was the first time in his three years at Minnesota that he has the depth to make effective changes.
“The staff had to look up the word ‘substitution’ in the dictionary because we had forgotten what it was like,” Hebert said. “It is great to have that kind of flexibility.”
The Gophers were able to change their lineup after a shaky first game against Wisconsin to overcome the Badgers. Charnette Fair and Stephanie Hagen came in to lend a needed hand on offense. Hagen produced 18 kills in her first game back from an ankle injury.
Hebert said the move wasn’t ingenious, it was simply effective.
“That gave us a look that seemed to be the right one for tonight,” he said. “It may not be the right one for match B, C or D, but tonight it was the right look. You press buttons as a coach and you hope they work, and tonight they did.”
Wisconsin coach Pete Waite said the subs Minnesota used changed the momentum of the match.
“That made a big difference in their game,” Waite said. “(Fair and Hagen) caused some problems. You can’t prepare for everybody down the bench.”
Hebert was especially impressed with the way his team continued to press on and never let Wisconsin and Purdue make serious runs on them.
“This team, whenever it seems to be pushed, has developed a resiliency to it that is very pleasing to the coaching staff,” Hebert said.
Branagh agreed that Minnesota came together and didn’t let their opponents take control of the match.
“Even when we were down, and they got a couple runs or a few points, we made sure we came together on the court,” Branagh said.

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