Gophers look to extend winning streak at Northern Iowa

Minnesota will play three opponents in two days, headlined by a rematch with the host Panthers.

Charlie Armitz

 

Fresh off a sweep of Texas, the No. 6 Gophers volleyball team will hit the road for the second time in 2011. TheyâÄôre set to play St. Louis, Kansas and No. 15 Northern Iowa in Northern IowaâÄôs tournament on Sept. 9-10 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Minnesota (3-1) enters the weekend on a three-match winning streak. Dating back to their Aug. 27 five-set win over Oregon, the Gophers have won eight consecutive sets, including six against a Longhorns squad that ranked fourth in the nation at the time.

The tables turn this weekend, as Minnesota will face the pressure of being tournament favorite for the first time this year.

The Gophers will play unranked St. Louis (3-1) at 5 p.m. on Friday, and unranked Kansas (6-0) at 10 a.m. on Saturday.

Then the real test begins.

Minnesota faces non-conference nemesis Northern Iowa (7-0) at 7 p.m. on Saturday in its first true road match of the season. The other road matches from this season have been on neutral courts.

The No. 15 Panthers defeated the Gophers in five sets at the Sports Pavilion in September 2010.

Minnesota head coach Laura Bush, an assistant to Mike Hebert at the time, knows she will have a tricky opponent on her hands.

âÄúThey run a nice system,âÄù Bush said. âÄúTheyâÄôre going to have a good game plan against us, and I think a lot of it is [to] keep Minnesota out of system as long as possible. They want us to make the error to end the rally.âÄù

That strategy worked well for the Panthers in 2010, when they held the Gophers to a .193 hitting percentage. Tori Dixon, MinnesotaâÄôs top percentage hitter in 2011 at .423, hit just .069 in the match.

Losing to Northern Iowa served as the first sign of inexperience for a Minnesota squad that would struggle to hold leads all season.

It also exposed a key Gophers weakness in 2010: defense.

Libero Jessica Granquist, then a junior, found herself at the center of both predicaments. She was MinnesotaâÄôs top defensive specialist but a starter for the first time in her career.

âÄúI was kind of nervous,âÄù Granquist said of her start to 2010. âÄúNow, I have experience under my belt. ItâÄôs not new to me anymore.âÄù

Granquist ranks second in the Big Ten in 2011 with 5.12 digs per set. She won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the fourth time in her career following the sweep of the Longhorns.

Junior setter Mia Tabberson has grown into her starting role as well. She says she is more comfortable now that Bush has handed her the keys to the offense âÄî a luxury she lacked while playing for Hebert.

âÄúItâÄôs definitely helped get out the pregame nervousness,âÄù Tabberson said of her job security. âÄúYouâÄôre able to just focus on your team and your game and the team youâÄôre competing against, versus worrying about making a mistake.âÄù

Against Northern Iowa, limiting mistakes will be especially crucial.

However, Granquist said she believes the team is ready for it this time.

âÄúWeâÄôre just so disciplined now. Not that we werenâÄôt disciplined before, but weâÄôre taking it to that next level. ItâÄôs just inevitable that weâÄôre going to get better.âÄù