Gophers hoping to bounce back in critical home games

stbridgesymposium

Jennifer Whalen

stbridgesymposium

After losing three consecutive matches on the road, a home stretch may be exactly what the Minnesota volleyball team needs. In the midst of the teamâÄôs first losing streak of the season, the Gophers return home to host No. 18 Purdue and No. 16 Illinois. Minnesota (18-6 overall, 8-4 Big Ten) will face Purdue Friday at 7 p.m. and Illinois Saturday at 7 p.m., both at the Sports Pavilion. âÄúThe good thing is that weâÄôre home to bounce back from this,âÄù senior setter Rachel Hartmann said of the streak. âÄúWe can expect losing streaks, and by no means are we thrown off guard by this. WeâÄôre a determined group, and playing at home is going to be beneficial.âÄù That may be the only thing headed in MinnesotaâÄôs favor, as during this stretch the Gophers have been banged up, preventing the whole team from being available for practice. Middle blockers, sophomore Lauren Gibbemeyer and senior Kelly Schmidt have not been practicing due to injury, and coach Mike Hebert said that their status for this week was in doubt as well. Senior outside hitter Kyla Roehrig has also missed time this year, but appears to be back to practicing. âÄúWe would like to have everybody available for practice so we can get better,âÄù Hebert said. âÄúBut thatâÄôs not going to happen. So now we have to try and figure out other ways to improve.âÄù At the same time, the Gophers have faced their toughest stretch of schedule during the Big Ten season. And it doesnâÄôt get much easier this week. Purdue is currently tied with the Gophers for third place in the conference, while Illinois sits a game ahead in second place. The Boilermakers (19-5, 8-4) were swept by Minnesota at Purdue earlier this year, but they have been playing well as of late. Senior middle blocker Stephanie Lynch leads the team with 3.64 kills and a .424 hit percentage, including a 20-kill performance in a five-set win over No. 20 Michigan last Saturday. Senior outside hitter Danita Merlau and sophomore middle blocker Kristen Arthurs have proven to be the other two threats on this team, but with three hitters to shut down, Hartmann said the Gophers would be taking a similar approach to the one they took in the matchup earlier this year. âÄúWe need to stop their three priority hitters, and the rest should take care of itself,âÄù Hartmann said. Illinois (18-5, 9-3) took Minnesota to five sets earlier this year, as sophomore outside hitter Laura DeBruler and junior outside hitter Kylie McCulley both gave the Minnesota defense trouble, collecting 40 of the teamâÄôs 59 kills that night. DeBruler and McCulley take over half the teamâÄôs swings in any match played, and DeBruler has been most opponentsâÄô biggest concern, as the sophomore has averaged 4.54 kills per set. âÄúTheir key player is definitely Debruler, so I think in practice weâÄôll try to defend their outside attack,âÄù Roehrig said. âÄúWe know we can do it, we just need to spice it up a little bit and figure out who goes where, and how we can adjust to their style of play.âÄù