Gophers hope recent winning ways continue into home volleyball tournament

Jeff Barthel

Defeating Northern Iowa was something special for Minnesota’s volleyball team. Wednesday night’s closely fought 25-30, 30-24, 30-28, 30-27 win marked this year’s team’s first win over a ranked opponent – the Panthers are ranked sixth in the nation.

The victory included gutty performances by captains Cassie Busse and Paula Gentil.

Busse hit a milestone by slamming down her 1,000th career kill in a crucial game three versus the Panthers.

Gentil, on the other hand, was expected to miss the Wednesday night contest due to a shoulder injury. Tuesday, coach Mike Hebert rendered Gentil unavailable for most of this week’s competition.

“It’s just too sore to play with right now,” Hebert said about his starting libero. “Paula will be out for the Northern Iowa match and this weekend’s competition.”

The resilient Gentil wound up playing through her shoulder pains and came up with 27 digs in the defeat.

However, the victory will be short-lived as the team prepares for this weekend’s matches against Colorado State, Charlotte and UW-Milwaukee. The three matches will be played as part of a tournament beginning tonight against the Rams at the Sports Pavilion.

The Gophers will look to improve on their 4-5 record with the hopes of getting back to last season’s form, when they went 32-6 overall.

“All three teams bring challenges to our team,” Hebert said of the weekend competition.

Minnesota is 0-2 lifetime against the Rams. The Gophers last played Colorado in 1993, before Hebert came to Minnesota.

Defeating the unranked Rams will be a challenge for No. 22 Minnesota. Colorado State comes in with a 7-3 record and features two solid front court players – Katie Jo Shirley and Becky Sarauer, both juniors and all-tournament selections at Colorado’s tournament last weekend.

Shirley, a middle blocker, leads the Rams with a .392 hitting percentage. Sarauer leads the Rams in kills with 122.

The Gophers will counter the Rams attack with Busse (hitting .274 with 174 kills and 18 service aces) and Gentil (165 digs).

Charlotte enters this weekend’s tournament with a 5-5 record. The 49ers are led by Abbey Szlanfucht and her 3.76 kills per game and 2.74 digs per game.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee rounds out the tournament entrants. The Panthers boast a 9-1 record, thanks largely to Karen Fruit’s 4.62 kills per game and 3.32 digs per game.

Heading into this weekend, Minnesota has some definite power on its side.

Trisha Bratford leads the team with 125 kills and recorded double-digit kills in 14 straight matches dating back to 2002. Busse is right behind with 121 kills and had her own personal streak of 16-straight matches with double-digit kills snapped last weekend against Xavier.

Defensively, Gentil leads the team with 165 digs.

The Gophers are hoping for the same result as seen in last year’s home tournament.

Last year, Minnesota welcomed then-No. 7 UCLA, then-No. 9 Northern Iowa and Rhode Island to the Sports Pavilion and posted a 2-1 record. The Gophers notched a three-game win over the Bruins that weekend, which at the time was the highest-ranked opponent Minnesota had beaten since 1993. That record was snapped Wednesday night.

The Gophers also defeated Rhode Island in three games before losing to Northern Iowa in four games.