U Volleyball breaks road slump

by Sarah Mitchell

Positive words associated with the phrase “on the road” have become a rarity in Minnesota’s women’s volleyball program all season.
But on Saturday the team took strides toward improving that relationship by sweeping Northwestern 15-13, 15-4 and 15-10. Not only did the Gophers achieve a long-awaited road victory, but one player accomplished a career milestone.
Sophomore outside hitter Nicole Branagh landed her 1,000th career kill, becoming only the 11th Gopher in the program’s history to do so. But coach Mike Hebert said Branagh’s feat reflects an imbalance among the rest of the team.
“It’s a sign that we can’t spread the ball around and that’s undesirable,” said Hebert. “But at the same time — not to take anything away from the accomplishment — she’s constantly getting double teamed.”
Branagh tallied 18 kills against the Wildcats defense and now has 1,016 in her young Gophers career. But like Hebert, Branagh was concerned about the team’s overall welfare.
“Sure it’s fun, but going to the tournament is more important,” Branagh said.
Not only did the win on Saturday relieve some of the pressure surrounding NCAA tournament speculation, it also snapped the Gophers road frustrations. Minnesota was victorious in its first conference road match, scraping by Iowa 3-2, but since that early October game the Gophers dropped eight consecutive Big Ten matches outside of the Sports Pavilion, including a 3-0 fall to Indiana on Friday night.
Seeking its first winning season since 1990, Northwestern (15-15, 5-13) forced the Gophers into a comeback role early on. Stuck in an eight- point hole at 4-12, Gophers freshman Lindsey Berg started a rally from the service line. The Big Ten’s service ace leader landed another, and Minnesota went on to score four more points behind Berg’s serve.
“It’s amazing how often our team has relied on her serving to get us back in matches,” Hebert said. “Lindsey’s been our most consistent and competitive player all season long.”
Down 10-13, Branagh smashed a kill and then picked up where Berg left off, serving the game’s final five points.
“It was a pleasant surprise because we haven’t shown that kind of grip on the road,” Hebert said. “I’ve been one to point out how we fall apart on the road, but this was an admirable road win.”
On Friday, Indiana’s University Gym was an unfavorable place for the Gophers to play as they attempted to regroup on the road. The Hoosiers (16-11, 9-9) defeated 11 teams on their home court this season and quickly made the Gophers their 12th victim. Minnesota was swept by scores of 15-13, 15-8 and 15-9 on Friday.
Branagh and freshman outside hitter Yvonne Wichert led Minnesota with 13 and 10 kills, respectively. But a dominating Hoosiers block stuffed Minnesota, causing 23 hitting miscues.
“Indiana played just a fabulous match,” Hebert said. “We were sort of average or above average. It was sort of a replay of three or four other road matches.”
Minnesota’s regular season concludes this weekend at the Sports Pavilion. The Gophers are slated to play No. 14 Illinois on Friday and Purdue on Saturday. A split would all but eliminate Minnesota from contention for a post-season berth, but after the one road victory, Minnesota isn’t even considering this scenario.
“We are a lot more confident and know we can play,” Berg said. “We’ll play our hearts out.”