Gophers sweep pair of Indiana teams, tie season record for Big Ten wins

Mark Heise

With a pair of wins over Purdue and Indiana this weekend, the Minnesota volleyball team finished off the regular season looking like a team deserving of an NCAA Tournament berth.

The 10th-ranked Gophers (23-7 overall, 17-3 Big Ten) swept through both teams, winning each match in three games to improve their conference record to 17-3, tying the school record.

The wins also handed Minnesota a second-place finish in the conference, ending the season one game behind Penn State for the Big Ten title.

“We feel really good about how our season ended up,” senior middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “Our goal after we lost to Penn State was to finish second, and I think the way we finished strong after a few tough losses was a testament to the character of this team.”

With Wisconsin breathing down the Gophers’ back, Minnesota needed a pair of wins to hold sole possession of second place and started off with its best offensive match of the year to knock off Purdue.

The 22nd-ranked Boilermakers (21-10, 11-9) were looking for some payback after suffering a four-game loss in Minnesota earlier this season, but the Gophers shut down Purdue, averaging over 18 kills per game to cruise past the Boilermakers.

Minnesota hit a season-high .430 on the match, while holding Purdue to just .144, leading to game scores of 30-22, 30-22, 30-23.

Senior outside hitter Meghan Cumpston led the team with 14 kills and a .500 hit percentage, while sophomore outside hitter Kyla Roehrig returned to the lineup after a one-match absence to contribute 13 kills.

Despite combining for 24 kills and a .500 hit-percentage, neither Nelson nor Cumpston would talk about anything other than sophomore setter Rachel Hartmann, giving her steady play credit for the team’s success.

Coach Mike Hebert called Hartmann’s 44-assist night “her best match as a Gopher,” but credited the entire team on a well-balanced win.

“Like I told the team after the match, this was one of the most well-rounded matches we’ve played all season,” he said. “We just did everything well. It was the type of a match that another coach could watch and say, ‘that was a great performance.’ “

The Gophers followed the Purdue victory with a three-game sweep of Indiana (10-22, 1-19), extending their win-streak to six matches.

Minnesota wasn’t as sharp against the Hoosiers as it was when facing Purdue, but the Gophers managed to get away with it, topping Indiana’s kill total by 24, and out digging the Hoosiers 54-36 to win by scores of 30-21, 30-22 and 30-26.

Junior middle blocker Jessy Jones and Nelson recorded 13 kills apiece to lead the Gophers, while senior outside hitter Kelly Bowman led the team in digs with 15.

Despite holding the Hoosiers to a .096 hit percentage, Cumpston said the team wasn’t quite as happy with its performance compared to the previous game. Cumpston mentioned Indiana’s unusual style of offense as a factor, but considered the experience to be good practice for the NCAA Tournament.

“We didn’t react to their offense as well as we had hoped to,” she said. “It was hard for us to adjust to them at first and we really had to be on our toes. But it was good for us to see that style of play and, hopefully, we’ll be ready for it if we see it in the tournament.”

Gophers seeded eighth

Minnesota enters the NCAA Tournament as the No. 8 seed, and joins No. 1 Nebraska, No. 9 Florida and No. 16 San Diego as the favorites to reach the Gainesville, Fla., regional.

The Gophers open the tournament in Albany, N.Y., to take on a 22-12 Siena team, on Thursday. The winner will play Friday against the winner of the St. Johns/Albany match.

Minnesota had hoped to host the first two rounds and Hebert expressed the team’s displeasure in opening on the road.

“When we fight all season like we have, to earn the right to host, it seems a shame that finances and geography can take that away,” he said.