Gophers hope for record crowd vs. Illinois at Williams

by Kent Erdahl

The last time a Minnesota volleyball match took place inside Williams Arena, it ended with a Gophers player nearly breaking her neck.

This time, the only thing the Gophers want to break is a long-standing record.

No. 2 Minnesota will host No. 23 Illinois at 7 p.m. Saturday at Williams Arena, in hopes of shattering the program’s all-time attendance record of 6,046.

While the Gophers are looking to break the record set against Purdue in 1990, they are looking to avoid an outcome similar to that of the second-largest match in program history.

That match, which was the last before Minnesota moved into the Sports Pavilion, ended when Minnesota’s setter, Sue Jackson, dove off The Barn’s notoriously raised floor on game point of game five.

Jackson not only failed to keep the ball alive, she also nearly killed herself by crashing into metal railing behind press row. The Gophers’ season ended at the hands of Notre Dame on that point, but neither the 6,002 in attendance nor the players made a sound while the medical personnel carted Jackson away.

Jackson didn’t suffer any major injuries, but Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said he would like to forget about how the match ended.

“It was kind of an interesting last snapshot,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “Let’s change the topic.”

Hebert might want to avoid the subject because injury appears to be the biggest challenge to the fate of Minnesota’s season.

The Gophers (17-2) have swept their last three opponents, and they look well on their way to solidifying home-court advantage for an NCAA regional at the end of the season.

A win over the No. 23 Illini would help solidify Minnesota’s postseason prospects, and setter Lindsey Taatjes said a good turnout could do more for the team than just setting a new attendance record.

“It would be awesome if we could get a lot of fans in (Williams Arena), because it’s going to be a lot more open than the Pavilion,” Taatjes said.

The athletics department is trying to do its part to help fill the seats. Tickets for the match can be purchased for $1, and there will be free ticket vouchers handed out at the women’s basketball team’s Hoopla 2004 event Saturday.

Fans or not, Minnesota is preparing for one of its biggest home conference matches of the season. And the Gophers said they don’t want to leave anything to chance.

Today, the team will practice in its temporary home in preparation for the first match since that five-game loss in 1993.

“It will be different,” middle blocker Jessica Byrnes said. “We’re just hoping not to go plunging off the side.”

Hebert said he isn’t too worried about the unique challenge the floor could present. He said the playing area is actually bigger than some of the other courts in the Big Ten.

“There really is quite a bit of room,” Hebert said. “The only difficulty is, if you do get to the edge, you don’t have a lot of options.”