Battle-tested Gophers open Big Ten

No. 9 Minnesota will play third-ranked Illinois and Northwestern.

Charlie Armitz

After an eventful four weeks of nonconference play, the No. 9 Gophers volleyball team returns home with an opportunity to make its case as the Big TenâÄôs best team.

Minnesota (7-2) hosts No. 3 Illinois (11-0) at 7 p.m. on Sept. 23 at the Sports Pavilion. The Illini are the top-ranked Big Ten team and one of three undefeated teams in the conference.

âÄúThey are a very consistent team,âÄù Gophers interim head coach Laura Bush said. âÄúThey donâÄôt give away points. They donâÄôt make huge mistakes with how they attack. You are forced to beat them; they are not going to beat themselves.âÄù

The Gophers and Illini played two five-set matches in 2010, with each team winning in the otherâÄôs home gym.

Both matches were packed with drama. In IllinoisâÄô 3-2 win Oct. 22 at the Sports Pavilion the Illini rebounded from a 2-1 sets deficit and a 25-6 pounding in the second set to hand Minnesota its second home loss of the season.

One month later, the Gophers saved four match points in the fourth set en route to their own comeback win.

Minnesota anticipates no less of a challenge this time.

âÄúI definitely expect a close match,âÄù senior libero Jessica Granquist said. âÄúWe run a similar system to them, so it will be [about] who can perform their system more efficiently. I expect them to be scrappy, hit some big balls, get some blocks and make some really good plays.âÄù

The GophersâÄô second match of the weekend âÄî a Sunday matinee against Northwestern (9-2) âÄî figures to be more one-sided.

Minnesota split its two matches against the Wildcats in 2010, losing 3-1 in Evanston, Ill., on Oct. 10, and winning 3-1 at home on Oct. 29.

In both 2010 matches, Northwestern was ranked No. 24. This season, they are unranked and have not received votes in the AVCA poll since Sept. 5.

âÄúNorthwestern is better than what I imagine people think about them,âÄù Bush said. âÄúWeâÄôre going to have to be good [in] both [matches] to win.âÄù

Pending the results of other Big Ten matches, the Gophers could break into the AVCA Top five with a weekend sweep.

They have not held such a position since the end of the 2009 season, when Mike Hebert led the team to the NCAA Final Four.

Conference outlook

Two high-profile teams âÄî conference newcomer Nebraska and four-time defending NCAA champion Penn State âÄî kicked off the Big Ten season Wednesday night in Lincoln, Neb.

The Huskers defeated the Nittany Lions, 25-18, 25-16, 23-25, 19-25, 15-10.

If the early-season success of the Big Ten is any indication, that match served as a preview of quality competition to come.

The Big Ten has more ranked teams âÄî seven âÄî than any other conference, including four teams in the Top 10.

No. 3 Illinois is on top, with No. 5 Penn State not far behind. Minnesota (No. 9) and Nebraska (No. 10) will be tested right out of the gates by the Illini and Nittany Lions this week.

Of the remaining top-25 teams in the conference, two (No. 13 Purdue and No. 18 Michigan) are undefeated, and one (No. 24 Ohio State) has yet to lose to a non-ranked opponent.

Those seven schools finished 65-9 in the preseason. The five non-ranked Big Ten schools âÄî Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan State and Wisconsin âÄî finished 46-14.

âÄúEvery Big Ten team comes [into conference play] with a lot of confidence, usually from their pre-conference schedule,âÄù Bush said.

For the Gophers, that confidence is amplified by their success during a difficult first four weeks.

Minnesota has played four matches against top-25 teams, winning three of them. Both statistics rank first in the Big Ten through Sept. 20.

Two of those four matches went five sets. The Gophers lead the Big Ten in most five-set matches played with five.

âÄúIt shows a lot of resilience that weâÄôve been able to play in five sets and win some of those matches early in the season,âÄù senior Hailey Cowles said. âÄúItâÄôs very difficult for teams to do.âÄù

Minnesota has also played fewer home matches âÄî two âÄî than any other Big Ten team. The Gophers swept then-No. 4 Texas on Sept. 2-3, at home, winning both matches in straight sets.

Minnesota is one of two teams in the Big Ten with a top-10 victory on its résumé.

The other is Penn State, which defeated then-No. 2 USC in its second match of the season.

However, the Nittany Lions have also lost as many matches âÄî three âÄî as Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan combined.

âÄúI think we are [better than Penn State],âÄù Granquist said. âÄúI think we can beat them. We beat them last year, they lost some [players] âÄî we have pretty much the same lineup.âÄù

Such a prophecy would have been ridiculed last season, when the Nittany Lions rode a 109-match winning streak into September. With its run of eight consecutive conference titles and four straight national titles, Penn State has dominated volleyball like no other program in history.

âÄúIn previous years, you [did] fear Penn State a little bit,âÄù Granquist said. âÄú[This year], theyâÄôre going up and down. You donâÄôt have as much of a fear.âÄù