Spikers fail to make headway on the road

Two losses over the weekend dropped Minnesota’s volleyball team into a second-place tie in the Big Ten.

Jeff Barthel

Down 14-12 in the deciding fifth set Friday night against Illinois, Minnesota volleyball outside hitter Trisha Bratford gave the Gophers one last hope.

Her flat-footed serve sailed over the net, landing about 1 inch in front of the backcourt line and behind the Illini defense. Though the crowd was silenced, Illinois came back to win the next point and send the Gophers to their first loss since Sept. 27 – a span of 10 matches.

“Tree played really well,” outside hitter Erin Martin said. “It was a good serve, and if we would’ve fought back and won more points it might’ve been a different story.”

The Gophers (17-9, 10-4 Big Ten) lost both of their matches over the weekend. After the exhausting five-match loss against Illinois (30-23, 23-30, 30-24, 34-32, 13-15) on Friday, they were defeated in a three-game sweep (30-25, 30-24, 30-24) at the hands of Northwestern (16-10, 7-7) on Saturday.

The two losses dropped Minnesota into second place in the conference – tied with Illinois.

Friday’s loss against the Illini (18-5, 9-4) was indeed a hard-fought one.

“I felt Illinois played a very inspired match,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “Their backs were against the wall, and they had to win that match if they were to stay in the race.”

Minnesota would have liked to stretch its match winning streak to 11 but came up short in game five.

In game four, with the score tied at 30 and getting set for extra frames, Bratford – a 5-foot-11-inch junior – gave her team a huge kill to put Minnesota up 31-30.

The kill came after an Illini server drilled a beaming jump serve.

Minnesota returned serve, and Bratford notched the kill. Her effort, however, did not sustain the Gophers’ brief lead as they lost the game.

Ultimately, in game five, Illinois outside hitter Rachel VanMeter was able to slam down the final point of the two-hour-and-20-minute battle.

“Rachel might seem like a surprise because many people might look at her stats and wonder where she came from (Friday),” Illinois coach Don Hardin said. “She played really well and lit it up against Penn State and Wisconsin, so when she’s on, she’s really on.”

VanMeter had 25 kills and hit .258 for the Illini, leading the team in both categories. The 6-foot-3-inch sophomore entered the match with a .161 hitting percentage for the season.

Gophers middle blocker Jessica Byrnes made solid plays for her team earlier in the match.

Byrnes, a sophomore from Minnetonka, Minn., recorded her first double-digit kill match since Minnesota’s first conference match of the season.

Byrnes had 14 kills in the match – a new season high – and led her team with a .440 hitting percentage.

Bratford led the Gophers with 20 kills and a .273 hitting percentage.

Paula Gentil, the Gophers’ starting libero, came up with her 1,000th career dig in the match.

As a whole, however, Minnesota’s defensive effort fell short against Northwestern.

The match started slowly and ended quickly. The Gophers lost in straight sets to the Wildcats – a match that took one hour and 35 minutes to complete.

Northwestern jetted out of the gates early. The Wildcats looked sharp in building a 9-5 lead in game one.

However, the lead would not stand for long as Martin slammed down a kill to tie the score at nine apiece.

The Wildcats then answered with a 5-0 run and went on to win game one 30-25.

In game two, Cassie Busse, the Gophers’ All-American opposite hitter, leaped up to deflect a Northwestern kill attempt to put Minnesota up 5-4 early on.

Minnesota was behind 19-11 when Kelly Bowman – a 5-foot-10-inch setter – made a dig that landed in middle blocker Meredith Nelson’s sights. Nelson was able to set up Busse, who hammered down a kill.

The point put Minnesota within seven points and looked to energize the team.

Minutes later, with the score 28-20 after the Gophers scored three consecutive points, Northwestern coach Keylor Chan called for a timeout.

Minnesota went on to lose the game 30-24 before losing game three by the same score.