Minnesota preps for fifth straight trip to Sweet 16

The Gophers will battle Stanford, and if they win, they could face Penn State.

Gophers middle blocker Tori Dixon spikes the ball against Radford in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Sports Pavilion on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Gophers middle blocker Tori Dixon spikes the ball against Radford in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Sports Pavilion on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013.

David Nelson

After battling through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Gophers will face off against No. 3 Stanford on Friday in the Sweet 16.

Minnesota almost didn’t make it this far after Colorado gave the Gophers a scare Saturday. Senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman said the reminder of a single-elimination tournament was good for the team.

“We really had to battle and get into the competitive spirit,” Wittman said. “It’s one and done, so seeing that we can pull out a [five-set match] with a win just shows … we’re not going to back down from anything.”

That idea of battling back in the face of adversity is not new to the Gophers. Minnesota battled through the gauntlet of the Big Ten this year — a conference that produced seven of the 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament. That fight helped the Gophers prepare.

“It’s always tough at this point — not in terms of the schedule or whatever but just the caliber of the teams,” said head coach Hugh McCutcheon.

While Minnesota could potentially face two teams ranked in the top three in the nation, the Gophers won’t have to worry about playing in an unfamiliar place. The Gophers competed in the Bluegrass Battle in September, so they should feel comfortable in Kentucky.

“I think we’re really lucky to have the opportunity of already playing in Lexington and playing at the University of Kentucky,” senior middle blocker Tori Dixon said. “We got an overall feel for the environment there,  which is a really big advantage.”

Minnesota will need that advantage Friday night against Stanford.

Similar to the Gophers, the Cardinals played through a grueling conference schedule in the Pac-12 and boast a 17-3 record.

Stanford led the conference in hitting percentage, blocks, kills and opponent hitting percentage.

“They have a very high volleyball IQ,” McCutcheon said of the Cardinal. “They manage the game well, they play with some good speed at the pins … and they have a couple of good [middle blockers] that can hold their own.”

Dixon and freshman middle blocker Hannah Tapp are tasked with limiting the production of Stanford’s middle blockers.

McCutcheon said that despite Tapp’s youth, she trusts Tapp against anyone in the country.

“Hannah’s done a remarkable job this season of trying to develop into … an elite collegiate middle,” McCutcheon said. “She’s much better now than she was a few weeks ago.”

McCutcheon also said the entire team has shown similar improvement over the last couple weeks.

Minnesota carries a six-match winning streak into its Sweet 16 match with Stanford, and it will need to continue to show improvement in order to make it seven straight wins.