Depleted Minnesota will have its hands full again

Mark Heise

For the Minnesota volleyball team to break out of its five-match slump, the Gophers are going to have to play pretty well this weekend.

No. 22 Minnesota (5-5 Big Ten, 12-8 overall) will face off against one of the toughest teams in the nation Friday night, hosting Penn State (10-0 Big Ten, 18-2 overall) at 7 p.m. at the Sports Pavilion.

The Gophers will then take on Ohio State (3-7 Big Ten, 9-10 overall) at 7 p.m. Saturday, playing that match in Williams Arena for their annual “Battle in the Barn.”

While Minnesota struggled against Penn State earlier this season, and narrowly beat Ohio State, junior setter Rachel Hartmann expressed confidence in playing these teams again.

“These next couple of games are different because we’ve played these teams before,” Hartmann said. “We have a really good idea of what to do to defend them now. I just think it’s going to be a different game.”

A different game against Penn State could only be a good thing for the Gophers, as the Nittany Lions swept Minnesota in three games Oct. 6, including running away with game one while hitting a gaudy .483.

“We weren’t used to seeing such strong hitters,” Hartmann said of the last Penn State match. “I don’t think we were really prepared for what was coming at us. But now we have some experience.”

The Gophers did do a better job in the second and third games against Penn State, holding the Nittany Lions to a .181 hit percentage in the final two matches, but Minnesota struggled offensively, keeping them from making a comeback.

Coach Mike Hebert recognized that, and also mentioned a need to serve better before mentioning his team’s home court advantage.

“They’re a very physical, tough team to beat,” Hebert said. “But they’re in our gym this time, and we’ll see if we can shake them up a little bit.”

To be successful, the Gophers will need to find a way to stop two of the best outside hitters in the country in Nicole Fawcett and Megan Hodge. Fawcett recorded 23 kills in her last outing against Minnesota, and Hodge added 14 kills and a .333 hit percentage.

“They’ve got a great team, from their outside hitters to their setter,” junior outside hitter Kyla Roehrig said. “But we didn’t have a lot of leadership the last time. This time we’re going to have Jessy Jones back, and this time they’re the ones with the target on their back.”

Minnesota went five games at Ohio State before beating the Buckeyes earlier this season and will need to be playing well to top Ohio State a second time. The Gophers swept the season series against Ohio State for the first time since 2003 last season, and have the opportunity to repeat this season.

But the ability to do this relies on, as Hebert said, the struggling team’s confidence.

“Our challenge this week is to regain our confidence,” he said. “And when you rely on a youthful nucleus like we are, the first trip around the Big Ten can be a rough one. Our job now is to make sure these kids believe they can win.”

At the Barn

For the Gophers, playing one match per year in Williams Arena has become a regular thing since 2004.

Minnesota’s night in the barn is Saturday against Ohio State, as the Gophers will attempt to break the attendance record of 10,927 set in 2004 by offering $1 tickets to non-students, and free admission to students.

For the team Roehrig said that the opportunity to play in the barn is a great experience.

“It’s just a fun time, knowing that you have 10,000 fans rooting for you,” she said. “It’s nice to have a chance to play on the elevated floor, the overall experience is just really fun in itself.”