Until last weekend, the Big Ten volleyball standings had an undefeated and seemingly unbeatable team on top, a down-and-out, winless team on the bottom and nine comparable teams jammed in between. But after Saturday, the standings became less muddled.
With six conference matches left to play, No. 23 Minnesota (16-9 overall, 6-8 in the Big Ten), after losing to No. 18 Michigan State on Friday and defeating Michigan on Saturday, sits sixth place in the league.
Not surprisingly, No. 2 Penn State (24-0, 14-0) remains atop the conference. After the Lions, which have six physical hitters in the lineup, Michigan State coach Chuck Erbe said the “rest of the league are just mere mortals.”
“Penn State is in another league right now,” Erbe said. “Penn State is on their own planet.”
Second place honors have no clear taker, as No. 8 Wisconsin (11-3, 21-4) and No. 18 Michigan State (11-3, 19-4) are gridlocked. Gophers coach Mike Hebert said the Badgers, who defeated the Gophers 3-1 at the Sports Pavilion two weekends ago, are more deserving of the second position.
“Wisconsin is capable of playing a stronger game,” said Hebert.
No. 15 Illinois is on a downward spiral, clinging to the fourth spot. The Illini lost their third straight match Saturday, falling 3-1 to Northwestern.
Despite the losing streak, Illinois, along with the other five currently ranked teams, could remain in this week’s poll. The Big Ten has been nationally strong throughout the entire season, making the NCAA’s task of deciding which teams to invite to the tournament when league play ends in three weeks even more difficult.
“Every team in the Big Ten is good enough to go the NCAA tournament, but every team won’t make it,” Gophers middle blocker Stephanie Hagen said.
Praise for Gophers, Branagh
While the Gophers find themselves near the bottom of the standings, Erbe predicted the scenario would be different next season.
Erbe said the only thing separating Minnesota from the Spartans is the experience of senior outside hitter Jenna Wrobel, who landed 25 kills and dug 12 against the Gophers.
“We’re going to be dealing with Minnesota for a long time,” Erbe said.
This is Wrobel’s last season of eligibility, but Gophers outside hitter Nicole Branagh, who Erbe called “Wrobel’s heir-apparent,” has two seasons remaining.
“Right now she’s a little bit wild on the court,” Erbe said of Branagh, who recorded her 14th 20-plus-kills match on Saturday.
While Minnesota’s potential frightens Erbe, Gophers senior Jill McDonell is sorry she won’t be around when the program’s restoration is near completion.
“The only place they can go is to get better,” the outside hitter said. “I wish I could be here in two years. Unfortunately, I’m on my way out.”
Berg sinks aces
On Wednesday Hebert said that if the team had to play that night, freshman setter Lindsey Berg would not be in the lineup. The reason for the status was a hyperextended elbow.
But Berg, who has played in 82 of the team’s 86 games, started on Friday and Saturday, sporting a fully taped right arm. Even though Berg was minus the jump serve on Friday, she still managed to record two service aces against Michigan State’s receiving game. Berg drilled the same amount of aces on Saturday while contributing a .333 hitting percentage.