Spikers focused on Badgers

Ben Goessling

Lisa Axel was just a freshman the last time Minnesota’s volleyball team beat Wisconsin on Sept. 24, 1999, but she can still remember everything about the match.

She recalls the adulation from the Sports Pavilion crowd of 1,591, the exhilaration of earning coach Mike Hebert his first victory over the Badgers since 1996 and the promise of starting her career by toppling a hated rival in her first Big Ten match.

“They were on their way up that year, and it still sticks with me how huge it was to beat them,” Axel said.

Axel, now a senior, is the only Gophers player to experience those emotions. Every athlete following Axel has learned nothing but heartbreak and frustration at the hands of Wisconsin.

No. 6 Minnesota travels to Wisconsin Friday night hoping to claim its first win in Madison since Nov. 22, 1995, the season before Hebert began coaching the team.

The Gophers (15-2, 2-0 Big Ten) are also looking for their first victory over the Badgers (10-3, 1-1) since Axel’s first conference match in 1999, and hope to parlay victories at Wisconsin and Northwestern on Sunday into a 4-0 start in the conference.

Lurking in the team’s wake, however, is more than three years of bad breaks, poor play and heavy hearts against the Badgers.

“I don’t know what it is, but we just haven’t played well there in a long time,” Hebert said. “Just keeping it together down there would be great.”

Which is something the Gophers haven’t done lately.

In October 2000, Minnesota rode a 15-match win streak, the nation’s longest, to its highest national ranking ever (No. 5). A crowd of 4,523, the seventh-largest in team history, showed up at the Sports Pavilion hoping to watch Minnesota extend its win streak to 16 with a victory over the tenth-ranked Badgers.

But Wisconsin, after winning a 15-13 first game, crushed the Gophers 15-1 in game two.

As if to rub salt in the wound, the Badgers spotted Minnesota a 10-3 lead in the third game before winning 15-13.

On Oct. 28, 2000, the Badgers broke a tie for first place in the conference by thumping the Gophers in four games before 5,392 fans in the Wisconsin Fieldhouse. The season sweep made the difference between the two teams, as Wisconsin beat Minnesota by one game for the Big Ten title in 2000.

Last year, the Badgers completed another punishing sweep, beating the Gophers in three games twice en route to their second straight Big Ten title.

The Badgers’ domination extends even further back than the last five matches.

Hebert’s record against Wisconsin while at Minnesota is a putrid 2-10. Even worse, the Gophers have won just nine of a possible 40 games against the Badgers in Hebert’s tenure.

“The crowd gets pretty hostile down there,” Axel said, recalling an incident last year in which the Madison faithful taunted Gophers setter Lindsey Berg incessantly. “Wisconsin is always up to play us, and the crowd feeds off that.”

It would seem the Gophers finally have their chance to turn the tide. The Badgers slipped one spot to 14th in the national rankings after stumbling through a 1-1 opening weekend in the Big Ten.

After losing two All-Americans from last year’s conference champions, the Badgers haven’t resembled the powerhouse that manhandled the Gophers the last two seasons.

Middle blocker Bethany Brafford sees a silver lining. In fact, she’s guaranteeing a Minnesota victory.

“Everyone on this team thinks we can win at Wisconsin,” Brafford said. “There are no questions this year about whether we can do it, and we are going to win.”

The similarities to 2000, however, are eerie: The sixth-ranked Gophers have their highest ranking since the loss to the Badgers in the Sports Pavilion, and Minnesota’s eight-match win streak is its longest since Wisconsin ended its 15-match run.

And as Minnesota looks for its first win over the Badgers since the Clinton administration, one of two sounds will ring in the Gophers’ ears this weekend: Brafford’s bold guarantee, or the din of the Fieldhouse faithfully celebrating yet another Wisconsin victory.

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]