Michigan schools provide tests for rested spikers

by Ben Goessling

As Minnesota’s volleyball team entered its final week of preparation for the Big Ten season this week, head coach Mike Hebert thought it important to shake things up, so he did something radical.

He gave the Gophers two days off.

The short respite might not sound like much, but to Minnesota, it was huge; the team played 15 matches in 30 days through last weekend’s University of Denver Tournament, and Hebert could see a break was in order.

“We hit the wall in Denver,” he said. “We’ve basically been playing as much as an NBA team, and it caught up with us.”

The eighth-ranked Gophers (13-2) didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday, but they couldn’t afford to rest too long – the weekend brings Michigan and No. 21 Michigan State, who embarrassed the Gophers twice last year.

The Spartans handed Minnesota its first conference loss on Sept. 28 last year, winning the first game 30-17 in rolling over the Gophers in three games.

The rematch last Nov. 3 in the Sports Pavilion wasn’t much better for the Gophers. Michigan State, in the midst of a 9-1 run to finish the season, hammered Minnesota 30-24, 30-23 and 30-21.

“People were just out of control against Michigan State last year,” junior Bethany Brafford said. “Friday night (against the Spartans) will show us a lot about how far this team has come.”

Michigan State returns five starters from last year’s team, which finished fourth in the Big Ten and lost to Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season.

While the Spartans, who were ranked 15th in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll, stumbled against an easy schedule in an 8-2 start, Hebert still sees Friday night’s match as a litmus test for his team.

“A win Friday night means we’re good enough to be in the Big Ten hunt,” Hebert said. “Many people gave Michigan State the nod to win the conference, so this first one is a real test.”

And it will be harder for the Gophers to pass without libero Paula Gentil at 100 percent. Gentil, who sprained the medial collateral ligament in her right knee against North Carolina on Sept. 14, will likely start against the Spartans, but still isn’t playing like the dazzling athlete opponents saw early in the season.

Gentil might not play Saturday night against the Wolverines, who went 6-4 against a tough non-conference schedule.

“She claims she feels great every day, but she still isn’t herself,” Hebert said.

The same could be said of the entire team last weekend. Lethargic from starting the season a week earlier than usual and fighting Denver’s altitude, Minnesota struggled all weekend, although they finished 3-0 and won the tournament.

The Gophers hit only .205 last weekend, and amid the many errors, Hebert saw a team begging for a breather.

“We’ve been going hard since Aug. 8, and it took a little bit out of this young group,” he said. “The communication just wasn’t there, but I hope to find a refreshed team this weekend.”