Gophers play host to Hawkeyes tonight

by Kent Erdahl

With its season all but figured out, Minnesota’s volleyball team will spend its final regular-season weekend waiting and playing, in that order.

With two matches that probably will not alter the postseason picture much, the Gophers enter the extended weekend forced to wait with all of the other holiday travelers for their flights and other teams for their playoff matchups.

Although the team is likely to secure home-court advantage for all playoff rounds leading up to the Final Four, Minnesota (26-4, 15-3, Big Ten) will know its postseason opponents when pairings are revealed Sunday evening.

Until then, the Minnesota Gophers have the closest thing to a sure win at home against traveling partner Iowa tonight at 7 p.m., followed by a long holiday weekend of travel for a match against Illinois on Friday.

Although they will play only one match, the sticky travel season will keep the team stuck in airports from Thursday morning until late Saturday.

“It is a pain that the road trip is so long and tedious,” defensive specialist Lisa Reinhart said. “But we’re definitely going to need to focus against Illinois, so I guess it could be a good thing.”

Although the match against the Illini might not affect the Gophers’ postseason site, the players and coaches said the match will be a tough and important challenge – especially because the team is trying to peak before playoffs.

Coach Mike Hebert said it would be nice to lock in a No. 1 seed in the tournament, which a victory over Illinois could do.

But he said the Illini probably have more to lose in the playoff race than Minnesota.

Hebert said combining that fact with Illinois’ home environment could be a dangerous mix.

“It’s one of the most difficult crowds in the Big Ten due to its loudness and proximity to the court,” Hebert said. “(The Illini) just play really, really well in their own building. They play so much better and more confidently there.”

The Gophers know firsthand how tough it is to play in Champaign, Ill. Last season the team lost in five games there.

Senior setter Lindsey Taatjes said it can be tough because of the wild student section. But she said the holiday weekend might benefit the Gophers – at least in regard to the crowd.

“We’re just kind of hoping a lot of their college-age fans will be gone,” Taatjes said. “Maybe because it’s Thanksgiving, everybody will be home, and they won’t be around to heckle us so much.”