Minnesota looks to end tough-luck skid

Minnesota swept Purdue and Indiana to start off the Big Ten season.

by Mark Heise

In desperate need of a weekend sweep to keep the hopes of a tournament berth alive, the Minnesota volleyball team returns to the two opponents it started the season off so well against.

The Gophers (13-11 overall, 6-8 Big Ten) hit the road to take on Indiana and Purdue after sweeping both teams in the first weekend of Big Ten play this year. But Minnesota will be facing a pair of different teams as it plays Indiana at 6 p.m. today, and Purdue at 7 p.m. tomorrow.

“Typically what teams do in the Big Ten is adjust,” coach Mike Hebert said. “They aren’t going to give us the same looks we had last time, and we expect that they have matured and improved since the first week of the season.”

Indiana (14-12, 5-9) appears to have the same threats as last time around, with the exception of improved blocking. Freshman middle blocker Ashley Benson is not only contributing 2.47 kills per game, but is also averaging 1.22 blocks per game, adding a new dimension to the Hoosiers.

But Benson isn’t the biggest threat, as junior outside hitter Erica Short will bring her 4.24 kills per game to the left side of the net; a place Hebert said Minnesota has struggled to defend.

“We have not been a great blocking team against left-side hitters this season, so that’s an area of concern for us,” he said. “All we can do is use the people we have.”

Purdue (14-11, 7-7) has even fewer options offensively, as standout middle blocker Stephanie Lynch is the only attacker on the team hitting over .200.

But Lynch has more than made up for that, as the junior averages 3.84 kills per game and a .342 hit percentage.

Despite opposition in either match, Minnesota’s biggest opponent is undoubtedly themselves this weekend. The Gophers have outhit their opponents in four of their last six matches, while out-blocking them in five.

“Our breaks are going to start to come,” freshman outside hitter Brook Dieter said. “We’ve been playing well enough to win, but just haven’t been getting it done. If we keep working hard, things will finally start to fall our way.”

Middle blockers Jessy Jones and Lauren Gibbemeyer have been consistently putting up strong numbers for Minnesota throughout the season, combining to average 5.62 kills and 2.71 blocks per game while hitting .298.

“I want to reiterate that we haven’t been playing poorly,” Hebert said. “But our hitting errors have been costly. We’re still competitive, but we’ll get into a tough match and all of a sudden we’ll pile on four or five mistakes.”

How does a team get past those mistakes that have sent a team talented enough to be in the top 25 to the brink of playoff elimination? Freshman defensive specialist Hailey Cowles had a simple answer.

“We just need a win,” she said. “Any way to get two wins out of this weekend will get our confidence back.”