Minnesota faces easier opponents down the stretch

by Brian Stensaas

Mere seconds after the sixth-ranked Wisconsin volleyball team sealed its win in the fourth game Saturday night, the Badgers’ bench poured onto center court and formed a giant hug.
They just defeated No. 7 Minnesota for the second time in a month, breaking into the Big Ten conference lead all by themselves. The Badgers control their own destiny at 11-1 and are arguably the hottest team in the conference.
But as the second half of the Big Ten season enters its second weekend, the Badgers play the next four matches on the road, including trips to No. 11 Penn State and No. 13 Ohio State.
Concurrently, the Gophers have a relatively light second half remaining. They end their schedule with a road trip against the Buckeyes Nov. 25, Minnesota’s only real threat.
“I don’t think we’re sitting in all that bad of a spot,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “Wisconsin looks like the strongest team right now but there’s a lot of volleyball left. I can’t imagine any of the top four teams going undefeated the rest of the way.”
But before the Gophers can begin to think about winning anything they have to begin matches better.
In the six matches Minnesota has played against ranked opponents, the Gophers have dropped the first game in five of them. Minnesota also somehow managed to drop the first game last Friday to a lowly Northwestern squad.
“They were not prepared for Northwestern in the first 30 minutes,” Hebert said of his team. “That will not happen again. They will not come out unprepared this weekend.”
The Gophers will host Indiana and Penn State this weekend. Both matches will be aired live on AM 630 WDGY.
Friday night’s match with the Hoosiers will be televised at 9:30 pm on MSC while Saturday’s showdown with the defending national champion Nittany Lions will air on ESPN 2 at noon on Nov. 7.
Maastricht honored
Wisconsin outside hitter Jenny Maastricht was honored as both the Big Ten and AVCA national player of the week for her dominating effort against the Gophers.
The senior broke a Wisconsin record for kills in a four-game match with a whopping 37. She also set a career high with 24 digs.
“It was an awesome, awesome match,” Maastricht said. “Thirty-seven is a good number I think. I felt really good and got some great sets.”
Maastricht is the third Big Ten player to be named national player of the week this season joining teammate Lizzy Fitzgerald and Minnesota’s Stephanie Hagen. The Big Ten leads all conferences in national honorees this season.
Leading ladies
Of the six statistical categories the Big Ten keeps for conference matches, Minnesota players are in the top two in all of them.
Hagen leads the conference in hitting percentage (.414) and is second in blocks (1.60 per game).
Nicole Branagh is leading the conference in digs with 3.71 per game and is second in kills per game (5.40).
Finally, Lindsey Berg is second in both assists (14.5) and service aces (.55) per game.
Wicks out
Freshman defensive specialist Kelli Wicks did not play last weekend and will be out again this weekend due to a sprained left wrist. She is in a cast and is expected to be in it for at least another week.
Wicks has appeared in 12 conference games and is averaging .43 digs per game.
Come one, come all
All reserved seats for Saturday night’s match with Penn State are already sold out, but general admission tickets do remain. A sellout crowd of over 5,000 is expected.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]