Gophers want to beat Lions, break pattern

The hairstyles on the Minnesota volleyball team have been known to be somewhat surprising. After the Gophers made the NCAA tournament, assistant coach Dennis Amundson lost his ponytail to the players’ scissors.
When Minnesota came back from near defeat to make the sweet 16 last weekend, coach Mike Hebert’s hair was nearly dyed purple.
And while the hairstyles might be a change from the ordinary, tonight’s matchup in the round of 16 will be a lot like the Gophers’ regular season: When Minnesota faces Penn State tonight at State College there shouldn’t be many surprises.
That is unless the Gophers win.
The two Big Ten foes have met twice this season, with the Lions winning both games in easy fashion.
“This match is one that really has our attention, because it’s a team that has drilled us twice,” Hebert said. “Obviously, so far we haven’t found a key to unlocking the victory box when it comes to Penn State. And we better think of something pretty quickly.”
The Gophers (27-8) will have to act fast tonight, or before they know it the Lions will be chewing them apart.
Penn State (32-1) is coming off a perfect 20-0 conference season, it’s the top-ranked team in the country, and the No. 1 seed in the region.
Oh, and by the way, the Lions haven’t lost at Rec Hall since 1995 — a run of 78 matches — when they fell to then-Illinois coach Hebert and his Illini team.
But that stat doesn’t scare Minnesota.
“The longer that winning streak stretches out, the closer it gets to a point of being broken,” Hebert said.
Penn State is led by middle hitter — and Big Ten MVP — Lauren Caccimani, outside hitter Katie Schumacher and setter Bonnie Bremner.
Minnesota, as always, will counter with its big three — outside hitter Nicole Branagh, middle blocker Stephanie Hagen and setter Lindsey Berg.
Lions coach Russ Rose said those players will make the difference between who will make it to the regional finals and who will head home for the year.
“We’re going to need big numbers from our players, and Minnesota needs big numbers from its players,” Rose said. “If one of the two teams can neutralize these players, then I would say they have a pretty good chance of winning the match.”
Rose said his team is certainly not going to take Minnesota lightly, despite beating the Gophers twice already.
“Minnesota is too good of a team (to overlook) because they’ll make adjustments from the last time we played,” Rose said.
So, coach Hebert, with all that said is there any chance the Gophers can go into the Lions’ den and pull off the upset?
“Yes, if they give us less than their best,” Hebert said. “We would have to be at our best and they would have to stumble. But that happens in sports.”
Otherwise, if the Lions play as well as they have against Minnesota, the Gophers will be leaving Happy Valley with a not-so happy feeling.
“From their point of view, they just have to replicate what they did in the first two times and they have a win,” Hebert said. “From our point of view, if we replicate what we did the first two times, we won’t be able to win. The burden is on us to come up with something different.”
One thing Minnesota does have going for them is confidence. After the Gophers’ comeback win over USC last weekend to advance in the tournament, Minnesota will be ready for the Lions’ attack.
“The win over USC gave us so much excitement and so much energy, we want to do it again,” Berg said. “Anything can happen and if anything, Penn State might be a little overconfident after already beating us twice.
“Penn State should be worried about playing us. It’s our third chance and maybe the third time will be a charm.”
And if the Gophers do pull off the upset, the Lions won’t be worried, Hebert will.
Minnesota has a history of celebrating wins with hairstyling decisions. If they win on Thursday, no one quite knows what will happen.
Only one thing is for sure: The Gophers would have to face the winner of the Pepperdine-UCLA match on Saturday and be one step closer to the women’s volleyball Final Four.

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]