Even with hot finish, team takes to road for NCAAs

Minnesota finished its season with home wins over Illinois and Purdue.

Robert Mews

Despite Minnesota’s volleyball team winning four of its past five matches, including a weekend sweep at home, the Gophers will have to hit the road for the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota, ranked 17th, had hoped to host a first-round match at the Sports Pavilion after beating Illinois on Friday, 30-28, 30-26, 30-18, and dismantling No. 22 Purdue on Saturday, 30-26, 28-30, 30-27, 30-20.

And, with their end-of-the-season sweep complete, the Gophers thought those NCAA Tournament wishes would come true. They beat three ranked teams in the final three weekends of the season to finish tied with Ohio State for third in the Big Ten.

“This is the best we’ve felt all season,” coach Mike Hebert said after the Gophers beat Purdue.

Despite beating Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin down the stretch of the season, the Gophers’ mood might have changed to surprise Sunday afternoon.

Those teams that Minnesota beat were selected as the 14th, 13th and 11th seeds in the tournament, respectively, while the Gophers were not given a seed. They had to wait to hear that they will go to Knoxville, Tenn., to play Winthrop (28-5) on Friday afternoon. The NCAA volleyball tournament seeds only the top 16 teams in the field.

“The three teams in the Big Ten that we’ve beaten and split with all got bids,” Hebert said. “It’s not immediately evident to me what they’ve done; that we haven’t done to warrant it.”

Despite the surprise and disappointment caused by the selection, Minnesota is playing some of its best volleyball of the season.

The Gophers came out with an unusually fast start against Purdue and outplayed the Boilermakers in just about every phase of the match ” hitting percentage, assist, service aces, digs and blocks.

“When you pile up all those kinds of statistics, it’s a sign that you’ve played a complete match,” Hebert said.

Junior setter Kelly Bowman led the way for Minnesota with her third triple-double of the season. Bowman had 12 kills, 32 assists and 17 digs in the match.

“We’ve been working on riskier sets,” Bowman said. “We were just throwing the ball more than usual tonight.”

The risky sets worked to the Gophers’ advantage as six Gophers had double-digit kills.

“I thought our setting improved a great deal from last night (Friday),” Hebert said. “They were right on the money with their sets.”

Minnesota was able to come out fast against Illinois on Friday night as well. Part of the success of the match was shutting down Illinois senior outside hitter Rachel VanMeter.

VanMeter came out swinging, registering 30 attack attempts and six kills in the first game.

However, Hebert later moved Kyla Roehrig to the right side of the net to defend against VanMeter.

“If we took away VanMeter’s best shot, there was nothing else she can do,” Roehrig said.

That move helped neutralize VanMeter for the rest of the match, as she finished with 16 kills.

Shutting down VanMeter proved to be the difference in the match as Illinois was unable to find the court the remainder of the night. The Illini finished the match hitting only .147.

Despite the win over Illinois and a win on senior night against Purdue, no one would have known that the weekend’s matches would be the last of this season’s volleyball played at the Sports Pavilion.

One of the seniors recognized after the Purdue match is Paula Gentil, who is only 10 digs away from being the all-time NCAA leader in that category.

She is also part of a class of seniors that has become the most successful in school history. The three seniors won their first Big Ten title in 2002, and went on to the past two Final Fours.

“I think Paula and all the seniors included really have pushed us to be better players,” junior captain Meredith Nelson said.