Key Gophers blocks stifle a tough Illinois frontcourt

Jeff Barthel

Minnesota’s volleyball team entered last weekend with 117 blocks on the season. After its first two Big Ten victories of the young 2003 season, the team has now compiled 138.5 blocks.

“I said Meredith (Nelson) did well (Friday) night, but I’ll speak with more fervor about tonight’s match,” coach Mike Hebert said about his freshman middle blocker following Saturday’s win over Illinois.

Nelson had seven kills against the Illini. Adding to that feat was that Nelson did not have one error throughout the match.

The seven blocks tied a career high. Nelson also had seven against Louisville earlier this season.

Saturday night’s output, however, appeared to mean more to Nelson. Her efforts played a key role in a dominant victory for Minnesota (9-7 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) over an 11-3 Illini team.

“We knew certain strengths and weaknesses of Illinois,” Nelson said. “We had them scouted out and everything went as we had planned.”

Apparently so. The Gophers were able to hold down a talented Illinois frontcourt that featured 6-foot-5 inch middle blocker Lisa Argabright.

The Illini’s leading blocker led her team in kills, blocks and hitting percentage before entering play over the weekend.

Argabright compiled 172 kills, 56 blocks and a .409 hitting percentage.

Saturday night, the Illini senior had only five kills and two blocks. She also had a dismal .083 hitting percentage.

Argabright ranked second in the Big Ten in hitting percentage before playing Minnesota.

The Gophers had success from their frontcourt players Saturday night.

Besides Nelson’s career night, two upperclassmen teammates also chipped in on the rejections.

Senior captain Cassie Busse finished the Illinois match with five blocks, while junior Trisha Bratford had four.

“I was most impressed with Bratford,” Illinois coach Don Harden said. “She jumps early and hits late Ö our blockers were never able to make the adjustment.”

Besides her four blocks, Bratford had 21 kills and a team-leading .432 hitting percentage.

Nelson believes the strong showing against Illinois is a sign of things to come.

“I think we have that spark back,” Nelson said. “We played together as one team, one unit working toward the same thing.”

Could that one same goal be winning a second consecutive Big Ten championship? Maybe, but there still is room for improvement.

“Tonight was not our best,” Bratford said, “But it was a step in the right direction.”

If Nelson continues to improve at middle blocker, Bratford keeps her hitting percentage up and others continue to step up, one might think the Gophers could turn its early woes around.

Minnesota dropped its first two Big Ten matches to Purdue and Indiana late last month.

After being pre-ranked sixth in the nation this season, the Gophers dropped out of the rankings.

Now, there seems to be a light shining that might lead them to more victories and thoughts of repeating as Big Ten champs.

“The excitement that was there last year,” senior captain Cassie Busse said, “was definitely there tonight.”