olleyball team riding wave of dominance

Brian Stensaas

After giving the final statistics sheet a long look-over, Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert glanced up, raised his eyebrows, smiled a bit and uttered one phrase:
“Pardon me while I go frame this.”
Minnesota had just defeated Illinois with an offensive barrage not seen on the floor of the Sports Pavilion since it became the home of Gophers volleyball in 1994.
Minnesota finished the 15-3, 15-9, 15-9 win with 52 total kills to just six errors. It made for a .474 hitting percentage — a Pavilion record.
“This was a very thorough win for us,” Hebert said. “Our outside attack was on fire tonight. It’s not often in the Big Ten you see a final hitting percentage that high.”
In the process, No. 9 Minnesota increased its record to 13-0, the best start to a season in school history. Also with the win, the Gophers are now just one match shy of tying the all-time school record of 14 straight victories.
Sure, the Gophers did next to everything right against the Illini. But ultimately it was Illinois’ failings that made the difference.
Minnesota’s Nicole Branagh has stalked the court this season staring into the eyes of two defenders in just about every match. In the first two games Saturday night, Branagh found herself single covered and struck while the iron was hot.
The outside hitter lit up the Illini for seven kills in eight attempts during the first game. She finished the match with 15 kills to lead the team after finally getting double-teamed in the third.
In the second game, Lindsey Berg and her fierce jump serve started out the frame with three straight service aces. Berg put the icing on the cake with an ace to win the game, finishing with five for the match. She also led the team with 10 digs.
Charnette Fair tied a career best with 14 kills and along with Stephanie Hagen ruled the net all night long, leading the way to a 6.5 block advantage for the Gophers.
“We’ve been working on this certain eye sequence in practice a lot,” Hagen said of the blocking advantage. “We pay close attention to the hitter, the setter and the ball, that’s the main thing.”
Aside from the defensive miscues, the Illini seemed about as sure of themselves as Homer Simpson at a diet camp.
Illinois switched its lineup on several occasions throughout the match, at times making for a very confused Minnesota bench. But once they had things figured out, the Gophers were home free.
“We did a good job at adjusting [to the changes]. By the time the middle of the game came around, we figured out their attack and were able to sprint to 15,” Hebert said.
Point runs were also in the cards the night before, but a little more necessary.
While blocking was the name of the game in Friday’s Big Ten opener against Purdue, winning was more of a matter of rebounding at the right time.
Though the Gophers defeated the Boilermakers 15-8, 15-11, 15-8, Minnesota fell behind early in each of the three games. But strong net play by Hagen earned the team a plethora of sideout opportunities and the chance to get back in the match.
Minnesota finished the match with a 14-4 team block advantage
The Purdue win was a solid team effort — Branagh, Fair and Hagen all finished with double digits in kills — but Hebert knew a change had to be made.
“We weren’t sharp,” he said. “Our passing was pretty erratic and we had too many hitting errors, but I don’t think we ever doubted that we would come back.”
While Hebert is out buying a frame for the Illinois stat sheet, he may want to pick one up for this week’s USA Today top 25 poll as well.
Penn State (No. 3), Long Beach State (6) and Pepperdine (8) all lost over the weekend — opening the door for the Gophers to move up to their highest ranking in school history.
In the Sept. 18 edition of the poll, Minnesota was just 30 points away from the No. 8 spot.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]