Spikers still looking for first Big Ten win

Jeff Barthel

Novelists often struggle to find their groove. Volleyball teams can have that same problem.

“We have a volleyball version of writer’s block,” Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert said. “At this point, every match is substantial.”

Hebert said he feels this way after the team’s recent struggles; the Gophers lost their first two Big Ten matches last weekend.

Besides those two losses, the team was pre-ranked sixth this season and is now unranked for the first time in 20 weeks.

This weekend, Minnesota will try to get back on track as it plays host to a pair of matches at the Sports Pavilion. The Gophers will face Northwestern tonight before doing battle with Illinois on Saturday.

Minnesota has won four of its last seven Big Ten home openers.

Hebert said he would definitely like to get into the win column in Big Ten play this season, but the team will have a tough task in taking on the Wildcats (9-5, 0-2 Big Ten).

“They are very balanced offensively,” Hebert said. “They have a very talented player in Erika Lange.”

Lange, who starts at middle blocker for the Wildcats, comes into tonight’s match with a .406 hitting percentage, good for fourth in the Big Ten this year, and 1.1 blocks per game. Lange also hammered down 200 kills so far.

To combat this, the Gophers will look to team captain Cassie Busse. A senior outside hitter, Busse boasts a .311 hitting percentage and has recorded 210 kills this season. She leads the team in both categories.

Minnesota is 0-2 in Big Ten play for its first time since 1993, an unfavorable situation for Hebert. But he looks no further than the future for posting victories.

“We’re going to have to play with a minimum amount of errors,” Hebert said.

A decision he’ll have to make in regard to cutting back on mistakes is who will start at middle blocker. Freshman Meredith Nelson or sophomore Jessica Byrnes will most likely be called to start the team’s Big Ten home opener.

“We’ve been having a lot more success at practice lately,” Byrnes said. “Meredith and I are both ready to start hitting.”

Middle blocking is a position where the Gophers have young and relatively inexperienced players. In addition to Byrnes and Nelson is redshirt freshman Athena Mallakis (who sat out last season with a knee injury).

Their statistics are a good indication of the need for improvement.

Byrnes currently has a hitting percentage of .193 and posts .46 blocks per game. Nelson has a .185 hitting percentage and stops .88 blocks per game.

Byrnes and Nelson rank fifth and sixth, respectively, in kills for their team. Also, Nelson leads the team in blocks with 39.

Another decision the Gophers have to make is who will be their starting setter Friday.

Freshman Kelly Bowman had a commendable Big Ten debut as the starting setter last weekend – helping her teammates by collecting 64 assists – but junior Lindsey Taatjes has more experience and owns the single-season setting record (1,734 assists in 2002) for Minnesota.

“Kelly has the diversity – she can set, hit, defend, serve; she’s well-rounded.” Busse said. “Lindsey is a rock on this team, a quiet leader.”

Hebert will have to see what lineup will best help Minnesota earn victories this weekend. But regardless of his lineup choice, the team is ready for Big Ten action at home.

“I think we all are just excited about playing in front of the home crowd,” Byrnes said.