Unbeaten volleyball in Michigan for big weekend

Minnesota’s volleyball team has a date with the state of Michigan this weekend.
The Gophers head to Ann Arbor for a showdown with Michigan on Friday night, then continue to East Lansing to play Michigan State on Saturday.
Minnesota (13-3, 4-0) heads into the weekend’s road test on a roll, winners of its last seven matches ,including four straight in the Big Ten.
Although the Gophers have gotten off to their best Big Ten start since 1989, Coach Mike Hebert has said all along that his team has still not been tested by the best of the Big Ten away from the Sports Pavilion.
This weekend will be that test.
“We had a great home win over Wisconsin, and then we beat three teams we probably should have beat,” Hebert said. “We haven’t played on the road against upper-half teams.”
No. 23 Michigan (8-4) and Michigan State (11-5) come into this weekend with identical 1-3 Big Ten records. Although the teams have struggled early in the conference, they will both be tough road opponents.
“Even though their records aren’t good in the Big Ten right now, I consider both Michigan and Michigan State upper-division teams in the Big Ten,” Hebert said.
Captain Linda Shudlick is excited about the Gophers’ strong start but she knows Minnesota will have to keep the team energy high in Michigan.
“In our first four Big Ten matches we have developed a real sense of team chemistry,” Shudlick said. “The test right now is can we sustain that? I think the answer will be ‘yes,’ we just have to go out there and prove that we can do it.”
Hebert is much more comfortable heading out on the road with this year’s team versus last year’s, which often struggled away from home.
“(The team) is feeling more and more confident with winning this year,” Hebert said. “Hopefully, what that means is that we are going to be able to head out on the road and face these situations with a little more confidence than we did last year. That is a prerequisite for winning.”
A main reason for the Gophers’ improved play is the blocking game. Minnesota is currently second in the Big Ten with 3.27 blocks per game.
Charnette Fair, Stephanie Hagen and Linda Shudlick make up three of the top six blockers in the Big Ten. Fair, a junior, leads the conference with 1.52 blocks per game.
Hebert said the improved blocking changes the Gophers’ complexion on the floor and makes their overall game stronger.
“It’s a lot easier to score on one contact than to have to dig it, set it and hit it,” Hebert said. “If you can block the ball first it saves a lot of wear and tear on the rest of your game.”
With the good blocking comes good defense. The Gophers have allowed opponents a .111 hitting percentage, tops in the Big Ten. Minnesota also leads the conference in opponents assists and kills.
If the Gophers sweep the state of Michigan, it will be Minnesota’s best Big Ten start in the 18-year history of the conference.
But regardless of this weekend’s outcome, Hebert thinks these two tough matches on the road will be team-builders.
“I think win or lose, if we play competitively in both places, I think that will win us the respect we are looking for,” he said. “If we don’t win this weekend, I don’t think it’s going to be because we are a bad team, it just means we may have run into somebody who is hot at home.”

ù Heading into this weekend, Minnesota outside hitter Nicole Branagh is in position to take over fifth place on Minnesota’s all-time kills list. Branagh’s 1,344 kills are six shy of Jill Halsted’s mark of 1,350.

ù Setter Lindsey Berg is still listed as day-to-day with a virus. Berg will make the trip to Michigan but whether or not she plays is yet to be determined. Senior Susan Shudlick has filled in as setter the last two matches.

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