They can dig it: No 1 Gophers win pair

Kent Erdahl

It was billed as a showdown. But when Minnesota’s volleyball team kicked off its Big Ten schedule over the weekend, the Gophers looked like showoffs.

The top-ranked Gophers flexed their muscles in front of more than 5,000 combined fans Friday and Saturday, disposing of Michigan and Michigan State in consecutive three-game sweeps.

With an 11-1 nonconference record and four wins over ranked opponents coming into the matches, it wasn’t like the Gophers were underdogs. But coach Mike Hebert still sounded leery of an upset before any games began.

“I’m not a very good predictor,” he said. “Most of my coaching years I’d be thinking, ‘They’re warming up really well, it’s going to be a great match,’ and they’d come out and, boom, fall flat. Now we’re horsing around during warm-up, not looking good and they go out and dominate. The old ‘el predicto’ isn’t working for me anymore.”

Although Hebert’s Spanish failed him it was, ironically, “The Three Amigos” that saved him and the Gophers. The defensive trio of Paula Gentil, Lisa Reinhart and Marci Peniata – who dub themselves the aforementioned name – were electric throughout both matches.

Michigan State couldn’t get anything past the three digging specialists Friday. The stat sheet told the story best. Minnesota held the Spartans to an abysmal minus .024 hitting percentage – the Spartans had three more hitting errors than kills.

Against Michigan, a significantly better defensive team, the Gophers were forced to work much harder. But the results looked similar, thanks to Gentil and Kelly Bowman.

Gentil broke her own school record for digs with 39, and Bowman recorded 10 kills, 21 assists and 12 digs for her fourth triple-double of the year.

“In practice, we were working on it. I was back there ready to dig, expecting that I would have to step up my defense, especially for (Michigan),” Bowman said.

Outside hitter Erin Martin said the strong defensive performance was important because the Gophers struggled to get things going offensively against Michigan.

The Wolverines recorded 70 digs in the match and frustrated the Gophers hitters, holding them to a .173 hitting percentage.

“I had my defense back there digging out balls and covering me.” Martin said. “Kelly had one great cover when I hit the ball right into the meat of the block, and I thanked her for it afterwards. You can’t really go wrong when you have people like that behind you.”

The two wins improved Minnesota to a perfect 12-0 for September, and the performance virtually ensures Minnesota will hold onto the No. 1 ranking for a third consecutive week.

“I was driving in (Saturday), and I was thinking that if we win the match tonight, I just wanted to tell the team, just how easy they make coaching,” Hebert said.

Although coaching might be easier, Hebert still has a tough time with predictions. When asked what the impressive conference opener tells him, Hebert responded with, quite possibly, the understatement of the season.

“I think we’re a top-half team (in the conference),” Hebert said. “And you don’t know that until you play.”