Struggling Gophers look to right the ship with pair of games in Michigan

No. 14 Minnesota has not won on the Wolverines’ home court since 2005, but it will be favored against the Spartans.

Ariana Filho and Mia Tabberson block the ball while playing against Illinois Friday night in the Sports Pavilion.

Nicola Losik, Daily File Photo

Ariana Filho and Mia Tabberson block the ball while playing against Illinois Friday night in the Sports Pavilion.

Charlie Armitz

Six weeks into the 2011 season, the No. 14 Gophers volleyball team finds itself in the same position as a year ago.

Minnesota (8-5, 1-3 Big Ten) heads east this weekend to play at No. 18 Michigan on Oct. 7 and unranked Michigan State on Oct. 8.

The Gophers played poorly last weekend against Ohio State and Penn State, but it has been a historically difficult road trip for the team.

âÄúWe had this last year,âÄù sophomore outside hitter Ashley Wittman said. âÄúEvery team goes through a little bit of a rough patch in their season, and this just might be ours.âÄù

In 2010, the Gophers suffered their most lopsided defeat of the season at Ohio State after losing at Penn State the previous night.

Flip the order of the two losses, and itâÄôs the same story in 2011. Minnesota looked sluggish and overmatched in its straight-set losses to the Buckeyes on Sept. 30 and to the Nittany Lions on Oct. 1.

WhatâÄôs different from last year, when the Gophers returned home following the sweep, is that they must now try to rebound on the road âÄî where theyâÄôve played a bulk of their schedule to date.

TheyâÄôll start at one of the toughest gyms in the nation âÄî Cliff Keen Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Minnesota hasnâÄôt won at Michigan since 2005. Last year, the team blew a 2-0 sets lead to the Wolverines on Sept. 25, losing 16-14 in the fifth set.

 âÄúItâÄôs an environment that has robbed us of some wins for whatever reason,âÄù interim head coach Laura Bush said. âÄúI donâÄôt want to give too much credit to a place as a reason for us losing.âÄù

Playing conference road matches in general has been tough on the Gophers. Since winning 3-0 at Michigan State to open the 2010 conference season, Minnesota is 4-7 on the road in the Big Ten with only one win against a ranked opponent.

Michigan is ranked No. 18 after losing in straight sets at home to Nebraska on Oct. 1. The Wolverines played without team kills leader Alex Hunt (shoulder injury) in both the Nebraska loss and the teamâÄôs home sweep of Iowa on Sept. 30.

âÄúWe might be playing them at the right time,âÄù Bush said. âÄúThey had their best hitter out all weekend, and sheâÄôs a big strength for their offense.âÄù

Bush said she expects Hunt will play Friday, but the senior outside hitter is listed as day-to-day.

The Gophers rank last in aces (0.67 per set), 10th in blocks (1.73), and ninth in hitting percentage (.164) in Big Ten matches this season.

They also lead the Big Ten with 103 hitting errors through four conference matches.

âÄúWe need to clean up our unforced errors, whether itâÄôs a net error, a service error or balls we hit out of bounds,âÄù junior Mia Tabberson said.

Many of those errors have come late in sets when the Gophers had a lead. Minnesota has been in a position to win several sets despite its poor play.

âÄúWe just need to be a little more focused at the end and have the drive to get those final points,âÄù Tabberson said.

Tabberson leads the Big Ten with 12.00 assists per set, 11.92 in conference play.) Freshman Kellie McNeil played well subbing in as setter against Northwestern, though.

Bush said she has yet to decide whether to start Tabberson or freshman McNeil at setter this weekend.

âÄúWhat we know right now is that if [Tabberson] struggles, [McNeil] can come in and energize the team,âÄù Bush said. âÄúWhat we donâÄôt know is if [McNeil] were to struggle, can [Tabberson] come in and energize the team?

âÄúAt some point we might have to find that out. I feel more comfortable and confident with [starting Tabberson].âÄù

MinnesotaâÄôs second match of the weekend âÄî at Michigan State âÄî will be a challenge in its own right. The Spartans havenâÄôt defeated Minnesota since 2007, but they took Nebraska to five sets on Sept. 30.

âÄúTheyâÄôre hungry to upset someone,âÄù Bush said. âÄúIâÄôm sure they feel like they might have been robbed in not beating Nebraska.âÄù

But the Gophers, who have underachieved in the Big Ten this season since going 7-2 in nonconference play, may be the hungriest team in conference.

âÄúIâÄôm looking for a big step,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúIâÄôm looking for two wins this weekend.âÄù