Spikers salvage weekend after shaking nerves

Brian Hall

A large Sports Pavilion crowd eagerly awaited an upset from Minnesota’s 21st ranked volleyball team over No. 6 Wisconsin on Friday.

ESPN hoped to see a match up of perennial Big Ten powers deserving of a national TV appearance.

And the Gophers looked for momentum as they headed into the second half of the conference schedule.

But playing in front of 3,417 fans, ESPN television and facing the Badgers was too much for Minnesota’s underclassmen.

“I think that probably distracted some of them and eroded their confidence a little bit,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said.

Minnesota (11-7, 5-5 Big Ten) underwent a complete swing of emotion during two sweeps, losing to the Badgers (30-12, 30-26, 31-29) and defeating Northwestern (30-15, 30-13, 30-21) over the weekend.

The Gophers were unable to generate any offensive continuity against the Badgers as Wisconsin’s block seemed to be in position for each Minnesota attack.

“I think we knew what their hitters tendencies were,” Badgers coach Pete Waite said. “Obviously, after the first game Mike went with a different lineup and changed some people around so it was a little tougher for us to key on those people we had prepared for.”

The most successful substitution for the Gophers was the insertion of freshman Amanda Cipperly into the lineup. Cipperly contributed seven kills in her first extensive playing time of the season, but Minnesota couldn’t make the plays needed down the stretch.

“As we have learned in rally scoring, if you make a big play at the end or if you make huge mistakes at the end of games – you either win or you lose,” Hebert said. “At the end of both games two and three we had severe passing breakdowns that caused us to lose both games.”

Minnesota had 11 service return errors and hit only .135 with 23 hitting errors. Meanwhile the Badgers held a 10-3 advantage in team blocks.

“Some of our younger players were a little bit intimidated (against Wisconsin),” Hebert said. “Not seriously, but just enough to keep us out of our game. Tonight our team was fully confident that we were going to beat Northwestern.”

From the moment the Gophers stepped on the court to face Northwestern, the difference in the team’s attitude was apparent.

The win snapped Minnesota’s three-match losing streak and ran the mark to 16 consecutive wins against the Wildcats.

The Gophers doubled Northwestern in kills 55-27. The Wildcats (8-9, 4-6) came into the match as the conference leader in blocks yet managed only five team blocks.

Minnesota’s middle blockers had a field day against the supposed strength of Northwestern’s defense.

Senior Stephanie Hagen had a team-high 13 kills with one error and a .522 hitting percentage while sophomore Bethany Brafford set a personal best with an .818 hitting percentage. She totaled nine kills in 11 swings with no errors.

“It was very important game for us and we knew it,” setter Lindsey Berg said. “We were very disappointed in our Friday play and we wanted to just get a little of ourselves back.”

The Gophers hope to sustain their energy and confidence as they begin the second half of Big Ten play with six of their 10 matches at home.