A five-set heartbreak for U

Sarah Mitchell

Following the Gophers volleyball team’s near perfect 3-0 home victory over Rutgers on Friday in the Diet Coke Classic, head coach Mike Hebert had no complaints, labeling the team as under control and confident.
Hebert said if Minnesota (10-1) “weeded out about three or four dead spots where we just did some bonehead things,” he would have given his team an A-rating. After the Gophers beat Rutgers 15-4, 15-4 and 15-7, and accumulated 42 kills and 7 blocks in the process, the third-year coach’s appraisal seemed fair.
But 24 hours later in the championship game, Hebert’s postgame words were much different. The Gophers suffered their first defeat of the year, a 3-2 loss to a defensively sound Auburn team, which reached the championship match by beating Marquette 3-0.
“The real surprise to me is that we were in the match and it went five games because we got beat in every category pretty soundly,” Hebert said. “But I did like the way we sent this thing to a fifth game.”
In games one and three, the Gophers were puzzled by the middle defense of Auburn, losing 15-5 and 15-4. Auburn’s middle blocker Jaunelle Hamilton was responsible for most of the damage with eight blocking assists and a hefty hitting percentage of .639.
But with a 15-13 victory in the second game, and eight straight service points in game four from the Gophers’ Yvonne Wichert, Minnesota was able to keep the hopes of a perfect season alive. Then game five began.
The deciding game of the match led to disappointment. Minnesota, which was 2-0 in five-game matches this season, caught no breaks from the service line. Plagued by four service errors (one each from Lindsey Berg, Yvonne Wichert, Jill McDonell and Susan Shudlick) in a game where a side out equals a point, the previously undefeated Minnesota team fell 15-13.
Second to the service errors, blocking woes contributed heavily to the Gophers’ struggles throughout the entire match. Minnesota faced a blocking monster in Auburn, losing this category 12-5.
“They have a very good block so the amount of court they have to defend is reduced,” Hebert said.
And if that wasn’t enough for the Gophers to focus on this week in practice, Minnesota’s concentration will also be on eliminating unforced errors. The Gophers recorded 37 hitting errors, 10 of which came from sophomore outside hitter Nicole Branagh.
“That’s not going to get anybody very far,” Hebert said. “Way too many unforced errors. Bothered by the big block of Auburn, sure, but we could’ve done a little bit better job of taking care of the ball.”
The young but talented Minnesota team was hoping to shock teams this season, but it was the Gophers who were fooled on Saturday night. Auburn’s big, physical play took Minnesota by surprise.
Nationally, the Big Ten is the most competitive conference, as six of the 11 teams are ranked in the top 25. Hebert expects the level of play from Big Ten teams to be better than Auburn’s best.
“Auburn looked to me like they were playing very well for them,” Hebert said. “I didn’t think they could pass and play defense as well as they did, but they certainly proved me wrong.”
Branagh, who recorded 38 kills over the two-night span, and freshman setter Lindsey Berg were named to the all-tournament team while Auburn’s outside hitter Brooke McCarley was selected as MVP.
Before opening the Big Ten season at home against No. 1 Penn State on Friday and No. 14 Ohio State on Saturday, Minnesota will take on the USA National team Monday night at the Sports Pavilion starting at 7:30 p.m.
The upcoming matches against two nationally-ranked teams is commanding most of the Gophers’ attention, especially after the Auburn defeat.
“I think we’ll be doing a lot of work on our blocking,” Wichert said. “This will be a hard week for us.”