Gophers try for first win in seven games

Mark Heise

With just eight matches remaining in the regular season, the Minnesota volleyball team might be feeling a sense of urgency.

After piling on the team’s seventh consecutive loss last weekend, the Gophers (12-10 overall, 5-7 Big Ten) are running out of time to right the ship and make a playoff run. Which makes tonight that much more important as Minnesota hosts Iowa, the bottom-feeders of the Big Ten, at the Sports Pavilion at 6 p.m.

“It starts with tomorrow night,” coach Mike Hebert said. “We have to win six of our final eight matches to get into the tournament, and that starts tomorrow for us.”

Iowa (9-14, 1-11) would be the best option a team could face when struggling, as the Hawkeyes haven’t won a conference match on the road since Oct. 28, 2006.

“I’m less concerned about what’s going on over on their side of the net, and more concerned about what’s happening on our side,” Hebert said. “But I’ve been in the conference too long to think that anybody can be taken lightly.”

The Gophers cruised past Iowa earlier in the season, sweeping the Hawkeyes with help from middle blockers Jessy Jones and Lauren Gibbemeyer. Iowa struggled offensively, averaging just 14 kills per game.

But this shouldn’t be a game of numbers, as Minnesota has proven to have the talent needed to win. Instead it will be a question of whether the Gophers can put together a complete effort for the first time since the start of the losing streak.

“That’s the hardest part, seeing us struggle when we have so much talent,” freshman middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer said. “Right now the problem is the mental game, but we’re getting better at it, and we’re ready to break through and put everything together.”

But even through the improvement, a losing streak of this magnitude can be frustrating.

“It’s been rough, and it’s really hard to see it not come together,” junior outside hitter Katie Vatterrodt said. “It’s kind of a chemistry thing, and it gets harder and harder to come back to practice and refocus after every loss. But we’ve been working on a lot of things, and we’re hoping to put some of those troubles behind us.”

Vatterrodt called some of the mistakes stupid, and said the team was working to cut down on things like communication errors and late-game mistakes.

To be in a position where his team is in danger of not making the postseason is fairly new territory to Hebert, as the coach has brought nothing but success to Minnesota since his arrival in 1996.

Hebert has missed the tournament only once in his last 22 years as a head coach, narrowly missing the cutoff in 1998 with a 17-win season.

And yet, Hebert remained strangely upbeat when talking about this year’s uphill battle.

“You might be surprised to hear that everything inside the program is still positive,” he said. “That’s one great thing about athletics, there’s always a challenge to compete for.

“Sometimes you try to finish first and win a championship; in our case, we had to let that go a while ago. Now we’re competing to try to make the tournament, and it’s no less of an effort.”