Volleyball team loses to No. 9 Spartans

Tim Klobuchar

For most of the third game Saturday night against No. 9 Michigan State, the Gophers volleyball team gave the illusion it was climbing back into the match.
After absorbing 15-4 drubbings in the first two games, Minnesota showed some fight in the third, taking an early 6-2 lead.
The Gophers came back from a two-game deficit against Iowa earlier this season, but the magnitude of the comeback needed this time was far too great. Minnesota coach Mike Hebert was painfully aware of how transparent this rally was.
“We played much better in the third game, and they let up a little bit since they won the first two,” Hebert said. “But the match was never really contested.”
The Spartans made sure of that, taking the lead for good at 11-10, and going on to win 15-11 to complete the sweep. The match lasted just 73 minutes, which was five minutes less than it took the Gophers to sweep Northwestern the previous night.
The weekend split at the Sports Pavilion put Minnesota’s record at 22-9 overall, and 13-5 in the Big Ten. Minnesota fell into a fourth-place tie with Wisconsin, while Michigan State (22-6, 16-2) remained tied for first with Penn State.
Against Northwestern, each Gophers point merely added to the formality of the blowout victory, but against the powerful Spartans, every Minnesota point was a victory in itself.
Michigan State dominated at the net, repeatedly blocking kill attempts by the Gophers, and then sending laser-beam spikes to the floor on offense. Minnesota simply had no answer for the Spartans’ height and power.
“We’re really hard to stop,” Michigan State coach Chuck Erbe said. “We’re just physically bigger, and we also served and passed very well. There was not much Minnesota could do.”
The Gophers jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the opening game, but scored only five of the next 30 points over the first two games. The Spartans, like virtually every other Gophers’ opponent, focused their defense on stopping Katrien DeDecker. Unlike some other teams, however, Michigan State had enough reinforcements to stop everyone else.
DeDecker was held in check with 15 kills, and no other Gopher had more than six. Sarah Pearman, who had 15 kills the previous night, was often matched up against the 6-foot-4-inch Jenny Whitehead, and the result was only five kills for Pearman.
“When their emotional force is out of the game, it keeps everyone emotionally flat,” Erbe said. “We knew that was important, because we’ve seen them play well.”
The Spartans were beating up on No. 16 Wisconsin on Friday night, otherwise they would have had another occasion to see Minnesota play well. Admittedly, the Gophers were playing Northwestern, which had an abysmal 0-16 Big Ten record heading into the match.
But with the NCAA tournament selection only a week away and a tough remaining schedule, it was a match Minnesota absolutely needed to secure its spot in the draw. Besides Michigan State the next night, the Gophers still have a season-ending series at No. 4 Penn State and No. 10 Ohio State over Thanksgiving weekend.
“It was a must-win for us,” Pearman said of the Northwestern match. “Sometimes its hard to psyche yourself up for matches like this, but we made it a point this week to concentrate on it. If we would’ve lost it, our NCAA hopes would be gone.”
Minnesota never trailed at any point in the match, and pounded the Wildcats so thoroughly that Hebert was allowed the rare luxury of resting DeDecker for a long period of time. The Big Ten’s career kills leader had just seven, while three other Gophers reached double figures.
After the match, Pearman and teammate Becky Bauer spoke of the added motivation they had for beating Michigan State the next night. They said after the team’s first meeting in East Lansing, some Spartans players told the media that the Gophers were just a warm-up for the next night’s match with Wisconsin.
Hebert, though, wasn’t too upset with that statement considering his team lost in three straight games.
“They were telling the truth,” he said. “We were just a warm-up. It may hurt, but that’s reality.”
Unfortunately for the Gophers, Michigan State proved the next night that it still has a firm grip on that reality.

FRIDAY’S SUMMARY
Northwestern 5 4 9 — 0
Gophers 15 15 15 — 3

Leaders — Kills: Pearman 15, Baynes 11, Fiamengo 10. Digs: Pearman 17, DeDecker 8, McDonell 6. Assists: Bauer 45.
T — 1:18. A — 2,766.

SATURDAY’S SUMMARY
Michigan State 15 15 15 — 3
Gophers 4 4 11 — 0

Leaders — Kills: DeDecker 15, Passer 6, Pearman 5. Digs: Bauer 9, Pearman 9, DeDecker 8. Assists: Bauer 31.
T — 1:13. A — 2,569.