Ladies and gentlemen, to the thousands in attendance at the Field House in Madison, Wis., and to the households across the Midwest which will watch on a tape-delay basis on MSC . . .
Let’s get ready to rumble!
OK, so maybe this weekend’s volleyball match between No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Minnesota isn’t quite a Tyson/Holyfield fight. But to those with eyes on Big Ten volleyball, it’s darn close.
The two teams are in a dead heat atop the conference standings, both one game ahead of Ohio State. But this weekend begins the second half of the conference season. Anything can still happen.
“Wisconsin is just one more good team that is in our way,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “It’s a lot of fun to be in the thick of the conference race. It’s motivation to have a chance to win the Big Ten championship.”
The Badgers (19-2, 9-1 Big Ten) hold the obvious advantage of being in the comfort of home. But being at home doesn’t necessarily equal victory.
Earlier this month, the Gophers (20-1, 9-1) rolled out the red carpet for Wisconsin at the Sports Pavilion. The Badgers responded by overextending their welcome with a 3-0 win over Minnesota.
The shutout at the hands of Wisconsin could be a problem for Minnesota should there be a tie at the end of the season. To keep it an even tie, Minnesota must sweep Saturday in a tough arena.
“The Field House is loud,” Hebert said. “I coached an NCAA tournament game there in the 1990s where there was something like 11,000 people and it was amazing. It’s nice to be buoyed by a home crowd, but there’s more to it than that.”
The Badgers are leading the Big Ten in average attendance with 2,557 a game. Minnesota is second.
The undercard of Saturday’s big bout features the two teams’ middle attacks.
Minnesota’s Stephanie Hagen and Wisconsin’s Sherisa Livingston are slated to perform quite a show in Madison.
On one side there’s Hagen, the Big Ten’s co-player of the week last week after shredding Michigan State and Michigan for a .509 hitting percentage averaging 4.71 kills a game. Hagen also averaged 2.14 blocks per game.
Then there’s Livingston, who tattooed the Gophers last time out, finishing with 26 kills in three games.
Livingston is second in the conference in kills per game behind the Minnesota’s Nicole Branagh. As a team, Minnesota leads the Big Ten in blocks — Wisconsin is third.
Hebert knows some reconfiguring is necessary in order to stop Livingston, especially after last weekend’s breakdown against Michigan State.
“Last Friday (at Michigan State) was the worst we’ve played all season,” he said. “I don’t know how they thought they could slip past them. I don’t think we’ll make that mistake again.”
Hebert said upon looking at video from the Wisconsin match there were some things he noticed and will do differently. Most notably, not losing faith if his team gets behind.
Before any of this happens, Minnesota will have to get by Northwestern on Friday night. The Wildcats are 1-9 in the conference and in last place. Their lone win came early in the season to then-No. 3 Penn State.
For Yvonne VanOort, it’s a sore back. For Lisa Aschenbrenner it’s her ankle. It’s Branagh’s left shin and Charnette Fair and Lindsey Berg’s knees.
Every starter for the Gophers, it seems, has something bothering them. But all practiced and are expected to play this weekend. The Badgers may not be so lucky.
Junior setter Lizzy Fitzgerald sprained her ankle last weekend against Illinois and is doubtful for this weekend. Hebert, though, isn’t planning on it.
“I assume she’ll play,” he said. “Some teams are setter-centered and Wisconsin is not one of them, they have massive size and can hit anywhere.”
Fitzgerald’s backup is sophomore Morgan Shields, whom Hebert thought would start this season.
Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]