Thanks to Minnesota’s two-match sweep this weekend, the volleyball team has reached its peak in the 1990s.
At least in the polls anyway.
The Gophers (19-5, 10-2 Big Ten) climbed three spots to No. 19 in this weeks AVCA coaches’ poll. The ranking is Minnesota’s highest this decade.
The last time the team was ranked in the top 20 was 1989, when the Gophers finished at 16th.
Coach Mike Hebert doesn’t so much see the rankings as a boost to his club as it is an incentive for opponents.
“It means absolutely nothing (about who wins and loses),” Hebert said. “If anything, it makes the opponent who gets to play a ranked team feel that much more motivated to try and pick somebody off and give them a feather in their cap.”
The Gophers and top-ranked Penn State are the only two Big Ten teams representing the conference in the top 25.
Hebert said the slim showing surprises him and he blames it on preseason would-be powerhouse Wisconsin’s lack of production.
“(The pollsters) assume that if Wisconsin didn’t come through, we’ve never heard of the other teams that are doing well, so no one must be doing well,” he said.
Minnesota will look to use the next three matches against Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin-Green Bay — teams with a combined 10-56 record — to move higher up the poll ladder.
The Gophers aim for win No. 20 tonight when the Hawkeyes visit the Sports Pavilion.
A Minnesota win would mark the second-fastest time in school history the team has reached the 20-win plateau. 1989, when the team reached the mark in 24 games was the fastest. Tonight’s game is the 25th game of the season.
With a second-place Big Ten ranking, Minnesota is preparing for the stretch run and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
But the season is a long way from over.
“No one is a lock, but it seems as though we will be in the tournament,” Hebert said. “What I’m thinking about now is ‘can we play well enough to get a top-16 seed and be able to host the first round.'”
However, the road will be a tough one for the Gophers. Following Wednesday’s match with Iowa, Minnesota will finish the season with six of its eight matches away from the Sports Pavilion.
Hebert said the Gophers need to take care of business in the next three matches against weaker teams.
“It’s good to make our mark right now,” Hebert said. “Because we are going to head in to some pretty heavy waters towards the end.”
Although the Gophers starting lineup has survived injuries with impressive play, the Minnesota bench is hurting.
Junior outside hitter Lisa Aschenbrenner missed the past weekend with an injured shoulder. She is out against Iowa and won’t even make the trip this weekend.
Aschenbrenner is not alone in the injured-shoulder category. Middle blocker Heather Baxter also missed the weekend with a sore shoulder. Baxter will be available in an emergency role this weekend.
Hebert said he hoped to use this weekend’s games against lesser opponents as a chance to give the backups more playing time. But with the injuries, Hebert said, that won’t be possible.
John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]