Gophers looking to stay alive against Pepperdine in Sweet 16

Jeff Barthel

Minnesota’s volleyball team will look to knock off a Pepperdine squad that has won 25 straight matches tonight at The Pyramid.

No, the Gophers aren’t in Egypt, but in Long Beach, Calif. to compete as one of 16 NCAA Division I volleyball teams still alive in the postseason tournament.

Minnesota defeated the Waves 3-0 last year.

“It’s a different team from last year, but the lineups will be very similar,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said.

The Gophers faced Pepperdine in their first match of the 2002 season – they defeated the then-No. 8 Waves 30-24, 30-25, 30-28.

“We were unranked and caught them by surprise,” Hebert said.

This year’s Gophers (23-10) currently bear a No. 14 ranking and will compete against the 4th-ranked Waves (27-2) in a 7:30 p.m. PST (9:30 p.m. CST) match tonight.

All-time, Minnesota has a career-record of 2-0 against Pepperdine.

Should the Gophers win, they’d advance to their first-ever Elite Eight and take on the winner of No. 5 Stanford (25-6) and 13th-ranked Washington (22-8).

The Gophers have appeared in the third round of the NCAA tournament in three of the past four seasons, but have never advanced to the Regional Finals.

“(This year) we have a much better feeling of being on a mission,” Hebert said. “They’ve fought and clawed their way back from the bottom of the barrel, that provides me with a lot of confidence that they’ll put on a good show.”

Minnesota started the year ranked 6th, but dropped its first four matches and eventually slipped out of the top 25.

The Gophers have bounced back to win 17 of their last 20 matches. Hebert is pleased will their performance, but also remembers the Waves from last year and knows to be cautious.

Pepperdine coach Nina Matthies remembered that match but was reluctant to compare the two.

“Last year was last year,” Matthies said. “(This time) it’s a whole different ballgame.”

The Waves come into tonight’s contest having not lost since Sept. 3 – a 3-0 loss at No. 1 USC.

“For us to win, Cassie Busse, Erin Martin, and Trisha Bratford are all going to have to deliver,” Hebert said.

Busse – an All-American and the 2003 Big Ten player of the year – leads the Minnesota offense in kills (531) and hitting percentage (.300).

Bratford and Martin have contributed 438 and 409 kills, respectively, this season. Martin – a junior outside hitter – is also second on the team with her .252 hitting percentage.

Hebert also said middle blockers Jessica Byrnes and Meredith Nelson will have to step up.

Nelson and Byrnes have shared the role of starting middle blocker this season.

Minnesota’s blocking attack finished third in the Big Ten this year. The Gophers are led by Nelson – the only player to knock away triple figures (128) in blocks.

The Gophers have 335 (119 solo, 432 assists) blocks as a team.

Pepperdine has 306.5 blocks (79 solo, 455 assists) this year. They have three players at or over 100 blocks this season.

Sophia Milo leads Pepperdine’s blocking attack with 121 (23 solos, 98 assists). Seniors Lyndsey Hache (118) and Katie Wilkins (100) are the other two Waves who’ve compiled 100-plus kills.

As the most experienced middle blocker on Minnesota’s 2003 roster, Byrnes has a .230 hitting percentage and 70 blocks this season.

Byrnes or Nelson would likely go up against Milo.

She is a part of a Pepperdine roster that is plentiful in height.

The Waves also have as a 6-foot-4-inch outside hitter (Wilkins) and two middle blockers – Mia Arnborg and Kristin McClune – that both stand 6-foot-3-inches tall.

“It’s tough to play against a team with a lot of height,” Nelson said, “It forces you to use a variety of shots to score.”

Nelson – an All-Big Ten freshman selection – will be ready to crush the Waves. Joining Nelson will be to newly-selected All-Region players – Busse and sophomore libero Paula Gentil.

Gentil – who had 23 digs in last year’s match versus the Waves – is also a two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year.