Spikers win first Madison match in seven years

by Ben Goessling

MADISON, Wisc. – There was a moment before the fifth game of Minnesota’s volleyball team’s match at Wisconsin Friday night when it seemed everything the Gophers had built this season was about to crumble.

The team’s No. 6 national ranking, its eight-match winning streak, its perfect record in the Big Ten – all of it appeared to be headed down the drain, lost in the roar of 4,196 fans at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse poised to celebrate what would have been the 14th-ranked Badgers’ sixth consecutive victory over Minnesota.

After blowing a 2-0 game lead in stunning fashion and surrendering momentum to a surging Wisconsin team, the Gophers entered the deciding fifth game huddled against the cold possibility of another loss to the Badgers.

And it was in that huddle, while head coach Mike Hebert hurriedly juggled his lineup for the fifth game, the Gophers found something.

“Everyone had that look in their eyes,” outside hitter Erin Martin said. “There was no way we were going to lose again.”

Minnesota cut down on the errors that plagued it all night, and clawed its way to a 15-10 fifth-game victory. Hebert earned his first win in Madison in seven years as Gophers head coach and the team its first win at Wisconsin since Nov. 22, 1995.

Further, Minnesota ended Wisconsin’s 26-match home winning streak, which included 17 straight victories in the Big Ten.

Following a 30-22, 30-28, 30-22 victory over Northwestern on Sunday, Minnesota joins No. 9 Penn State as the only undefeated teams in the conference. The Gophers have now won 10 straight matches.

Minnesota (17-2, 4-0 Big Ten) won the first two games against the Badgers (11-4, 2-2) 30-27 and 32-30 despite 17 errors and an eroding sense of communication on the court. Minnesota came back from a 20-11 deficit and survived two Badgers game points to win the second game.

Games three and four, however, were when the wheels came off.

Wisconsin won 30-17 and 30-20, completely dominating Minnesota in every phase of the game. The Gophers hit a pathetic -.011 in the third and fourth games, compared to a Badgers average of .341.

“We completely disintegrated in games three and four,” Hebert said. “That just wasn’t us.”

But Minnesota recovered its composure just in time to control the fifth game and end seven years of purgatory in the Fieldhouse.

“I had flashbacks of the last several years (before the fifth game),” middle blocker Bethany Brafford said. “Everyone had their doubts, but we just had to forget about what happened before.”

After winning just nine games against the Badgers and only two in Madison, Hebert’s first win at Wisconsin as Minnesota’s head coach wasn’t how he imagined it.

But he’ll take it any way he can.

“I wish I could say we played well,” Hebert said. “But it’s huge to play crummy and win here, and it’s a great win for the program.”

Minnesota’s win over Northwestern on Sunday gave the Wildcats (10-6, 3-1) their first conference loss and moved the Gophers ahead of Northwestern in the Big Ten.

Facing a much-improved Northwestern team, the Gophers nonetheless dominated in a three-game victory.

“It was a very businesslike performance today,” Hebert said. “I’m sure Northwestern wanted this one badly, but our passing really frustrated them.”

But the story of Minnesota’s weekend was the stand it made before the fifth game in Madison to end years of frustration in the Fieldhouse.

“The excitement came back before the fifth game,” Brafford said. “It’s a tough place to play, and it’s incredible to finally get a win here.”

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]