Spikers let Penn State steal victory, Big Ten title in home match

Minnesota needed a win Friday to keep its hopes of repeating as Big Ten champions alive.

Jeff Barthel

Minnesota’s 19th-ranked volleyball team came into Friday night’s match against No. 11 Penn State having won 13 straight home matches.

An attendance of 4,658 – the fifth-largest in the Sports Pavilion’s history – watched as the Gophers streak and Big Ten title hopes were soon vanquished. Minnesota lost the match and any chance they had to repeat as Big Ten champions.

“A tip of the cap goes to Penn State,” Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert said. “They were very prepared for us (and) coming down to it, they were just too good (Friday).”

The defending Big Ten champion Gophers (22-10, 15-5 Big Ten) were dethroned by the Lions (28-4, 17-3) in four sets (30-19, 30-26, 27-30, 30-24) Friday. On Saturday, Minnesota rebounded to defeat Ohio State (11-17, 5-15) in straight sets.

The Gophers finished their 2003 Big Ten season with a share of second place – Illinois finished with a 15-5 conference record as well.

“Finishing 15-5 in the Big Ten is something to be proud of,” Hebert said. “Although we fell a bit short of defending the championship, it was a very gratifying season.”

The Gophers were led against the Lions by a 20 kill effort from senior captain Cassie Busse. The All-American also had a career-high 73 attempts in the loss.

Sioux Falls, S.D., native Ashley Pederson led Penn State with 24 kills and following her team’s win, was greeted by some home state fans and a South Dakota television crew.

“Ashley was taking some big swings and Smitty (Penn State middle blocker Cara Smith) is as competitive a player as we’ve had,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “I was pleased our kids worked hard at the game plan we devised.”

Pederson had a .328 hitting percentage. Smith, a 6-foot-1-inch All-American, had a 19 kill, .320 hitting performance. As a whole, Penn State hit .248.

Both Smith and Pederson were aided by a 66 assist effort from setter Sam Tortorello.

Freshman Cassy Salyer had 11 kills and six blocks for Penn State.

“Sammy did a good job of keeping us in rhythm,” Pederson said. “It seemed that Cassy was holding the match early in the middle, but I thought Sam did a good job later with getting it to me as well.”

Tortorello’s assist total was 10 more than Minnesota’s junior setter Lindsey Taatjes. Tortorello, a 5-foot-11-inch sophomore setter, also had a career-high 25 digs.

Penn State amassed 107 digs for the match. Minnesota, the Big Ten leader in digs, compiled 112 digs.

“We had a lot of good performances,” Hebert said. “I thought defensively especially.”

Taatjes scooped up 27 digs for the Gophers – a career-high. Sophomore Paula Gentil’s school record 33 digs led Minnesota.

Gentil also led the Gophers with 19 digs in a 30-26, 30-18, 30-21 win over Ohio State on Saturday.

The Gophers held the Buckeyes to a .181 hitting percentage, forcing Ohio State to commit 25 hitting errors.

Buckeyes All-American – and 2002 Big Ten player of the year – Stacey Gordon led her team with 21 kills, but had a match-high eight hitting errors.

Gordon, along with two other Buckeye players, led Ohio State with three blocking assists.

“I was very proud of the effort we had against Stacey Gordon,” Hebert said.

Three solo blocks by junior outside hitter Erin Martin led Minnesota’s blocking effort. As a team, the Gophers out-blocked Ohio State 9-6.