Second place on the line for Minnesota against Wisconsin

The Badgers have won seven straight matches and knocked off Penn State and Ohio State since losing to the Gophers on Oct. 18.

by Mark Heise

Tied with Wisconsin for second place in the Big Ten, Minnesota’s volleyball team’s midweek contest against the Badgers could be the biggest remaining match this season.

The Gophers head to Wisconsin today for a 7 p.m. contest and will try to finish the season sweep of the Badgers for the first time since 2003.

Senior outside hitter Kelly Bowman was a part of the 2003 team – the last team to win at Wisconsin – said she felt comfortable re-entering the tough environment.

“We’ve always been a good matchup with Wisconsin through the years,” she said. “It’s a tough environment to play in, but for the seniors, it’s our fourth time playing there, so I think we’ll be ready.”

Minnesota (19-7 overall, 13-3 Big Ten) will have to be ready because it’s facing the 10th-ranked Badgers who have been on a hot streak, having not lost a match since falling to Minnesota in three games Oct. 18.

That seven-game streak includes three-game wins over No. 5 Penn State and No. 19 Ohio State. During the stretch, Wisconsin (21-5, 13-3) has been hitting at a .286 clip – 20 points higher than its season average – and on average, has out blocked its opponents by three per match.

Coach Mike Hebert specifically pointed out the Badgers’ blocking as a focus for the Gophers.

“They’re probably the top blocking team in the Big Ten,” he said. “That means we can’t go out there and just blast the ball – we need to take smart shots to neutralize their block.”

Another threat Hebert mentioned was freshman outside hitter Brittney Dolgner, who has been red hot over the last few weeks – hitting .318 over the stretch – but hit .000 against Minnesota earlier this season. Dolgner leads her team with over four kills per game and averages 0.5 blocks per game as well.

Despite the Badgers solid play as of late sophomore setter Rachel Hartmann expressed confidence in Minnesota’s chances.

“I don’t think we’re nervous, although it’ll be harder this time than it was at home,” she said. “But we didn’t win because they played poorly; it’s because we did a good job of taking them out of their game.”

With identical conference records heading into the match and nearly identical schedules following it, tonight should end up deciding who remains in the hunt for a conference title, but Bowman wasn’t ready to rank this matchup as more important than the remaining three.

“I think the rest of our matches are equally as tough as this one,” she said. “It’s hard to play on the road in the Big Ten, and we don’t want to take any of these teams lightly. We obviously want a win over Wisconsin, but that certainly won’t be the only team we focus on.”