Gophers split pair on tough road trip

Kent Erdahl

By this afternoon, Minnesota’s volleyball team might no longer stake claim to the No. 1 ranking in the country. But after traveling to No. 16 Ohio State and No. 4 Penn State over the weekend, the Gophers said they are just happy to be standing.

Minnesota played only nine games in three matches the previous week, but the team matched that number in its two matches over the weekend. More importantly, the team rebounded from a four-game loss to Ohio State on Friday and defeated Penn State in a 2 1/2-hour, five-game marathon Saturday.

“I’m just sitting on my bed with bruises all over the place,” libero Paula Gentil said Sunday. “But that’s what makes the game fun. You don’t want to just roll over everyone in three games.”

The Gophers lost to Ohio State 30-24, 30-23, 18-30, 30-24 Friday. They then defeated Penn State 34-36, 30-28, 30-27, 26-30 and 15-11 in front of 3,179 fans Saturday.

“It’s a gigantic relief to know it’s done and that everyone else in the conference has to go there,” coach Mike Hebert said. “I don’t see anyone else in the conference going there and getting a split.”

The loss will likely cause Minnesota to fall from the No. 1 spot in the USA Today/CSTV Top 25 Coaches Poll, but that fall might be relatively short following the win over the Lions.

Minnesota outlasted Penn State thanks to some exceptional performances from two of its senior leaders, Erin Martin and Paula Gentil, and one fairly new one, sophomore Kelly Bowman.

A week after setting the school record with 39 digs, Gentil surpassed her record, and the Big Ten mark, against Penn State. In the five-game match, the two-time All-American recorded 47 digs.

Gentil’s performance helped tip the dig count in Minnesota’s favor. The Gophers recorded 121 digs to Penn State’s 113.

“I think that match lasted like five hours. It took forever,” Gentil said. “I had fans from Penn State hugging me afterwards because I was falling all over the place. I think they felt bad for me.”

Martin led the Minnesota offensive attack by recording 30 kills for only the eighth time in school history. She also racked up four solo blocks.

Martin and fellow outside hitter Trisha Bratford combined for 51 kills, but they also had 153 attempts.

“It helped that I was getting a lot of sets. I guess I didn’t realize I had that many kills, I just knew I had to keep swinging,” Martin said. “When I saw the number after the match I thought it was pretty cool.”

Martin credited her setters for good reason. Lindsey Taatjes notched 51 assists and 16 digs against the Lions. And Bowman contributed one of the most statistically complete matches of the season, posting 34 assists, 21 digs and 16 kills en route to her fifth triple-double of the year.

For the weekend, Bowman tallied 28 kills and posted a .444 hitting percentage, and she nearly had another triple-double in the loss to Ohio State on Friday.

As a team, Minnesota actually hit for a better percentage in the loss to the Buckeyes. But the match was never very close because the Gophers couldn’t rely on their usually strong defense.

The Minnesota defense gave up nine service aces in the contest, gave up 36 kills to Ohio State’s Stacey Gordon and were outdug for the first time all season.

Gentil said the defense really didn’t show up against the Buckeyes, but, at the end of the weekend, she said she was really happy with how the team turned things around.

“This was one of those weekends where it was almost better to lose, because we learned a lot from the loss,” Gentil said. “You always learn a lot more after losing.”