Coming off its first conference loss of the season last week at Penn State, the Minnesota volleyball team will need to bounce back quickly.
The Gophers (12-4 overall, 5-1 Big Ten) won’t see any easier competition this weekend, as No. 9 Wisconsin comes to face Minnesota at 7 p.m. Friday at the Sports Pavillion, and the Gophers take on a tough-luck Illinois squad at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“Wisconsin is a pretty close approximation to Penn State,” coach Mike Hebert said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes on offense, and their ball control is solid. On paper they look to be a little better than we are right now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t beat them.”
The Badgers (14-1, 6-0) have ridden a strong start to the season from sophomore outside hitter Brittany Dolgner, who is boasting 4.57 kills per game. Wisconsin has also shown its versatility this season, with a total of seven players averaging two kills per game or higher.
“They have some big hitters, but they don’t have a real stud that you really worry about,” junior defensive specialist Kelly Fallon said. “With Wisconsin, you just have to be disciplined and you’re going to dig a lot of balls.”
That was exactly what Brigham Young did against Wisconsin, out-digging the Badgers 69-58 and holding them to a .229 hit percentage to hand Wisconsin its only loss of the season. The Cougars were ranked 15th at the time, but have since dropped out of the top 25.
Illinois (10-6, 2-4) comes in with an entirely different story. The Illini have lost five five-game matches already this season, and they lost to Wisconsin in four after winning the first game 41-39.
Despite playing so well against ranked competition, Illinois has lost all four matches to top-25 teams. Hebert said he had taken notice of the Illini’s talent, despite their inability to close out games.
“They have a lot of new talent and new enthusiasm, and even though they’ve lost five of six five-game matches, they’re very formidable,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they easily could have been 5-1 in the conference right now.”
The veteran leadership of senior middle blocker Vicki Brown has nicely complemented the high-risk, high-reward offense of freshman outside hitter Laura DeBruler and sophomore outside hitter Kylie McCulley.
Brown averages a modest 3.25 kills per game with a solid .351 hit percentage, while the tandem of DeBruler and McCulley put up a combined eight kills per game despite a lower .223 hit percentage.
The Gophers will counter with the same one-two punch on the left side they have had all season in freshman Brook Dieter and junior Kyla Roehrig, while continuing to mix in a variety of different attacks from freshman middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer.
Dieter and Roehrig are averaging 4.02 and 3.81 kills per game, respectively, while Gibbemeyer has quietly notched 2.17 kills per game with a .313 hit percentage. Should senior middle blocker Jessy Jones return from her ankle injury this weekend, her talents would add another dimension to the mix.
After losing to Penn State last Saturday, this weekend became doubly important for Minnesota. As strong as the Big Ten has traditionally been, it has become increasingly costly to lose.
The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten last season with an 18-2 record. And with that in mind, the Gophers will likely be looking to get back to their winning ways as soon as possible.
“I would call this a crucial match,” sophomore libero Christine Tan said. “If we can beat Wisconsin, we can move up in the conference and make a statement. We need to take advantage of the fact that we’re at home, and prove that we’re able to beat top teams like the Badgers.”