Spikers hope to avenge lone Big Ten loss at Illinois

Ben Goessling

Want to know what outside hitter Erin Martin thinks about Minnesota’s volleyball team’s chances to win the Big Ten?

Too bad. She isn’t allowed to talk about it publicly.

Don’t the Gophers ever get excited about leading the conference at the halfway point of the Big Ten season, about being ranked eighth in the country? Doesn’t it ever come up in practice?

Nope. They can’t talk about the end of the season amongst themselves, either.

“We just talk about other stuff, about school or whatever else is going on,” Martin said.

Anything but the team’s postseason prospects. Minnesota coach Mike Hebert has banned his players from any discussion about the conference title or NCAA Tournament, wanting his young team focused only on this week’s matches against Illinois and Purdue.

Hebert’s task shouldn’t be too tough this week, as Minnesota (22-3, 9-1 Big Ten) looks to avenge its only loss of the conference season against the Illini on Friday night.

Illinois (9-10, 3-7) climbed out of a 2-1 hole on Oct. 12 at the Sports Pavilion to stun the Gophers – who were ranked sixth nationally at the time – in five games.

The loss snapped an 11-match winning streak for Minnesota, which was the fourth-longest in school history. It was the low point of a two-week funk where Minnesota hit just .187 over a span of five matches.

The Gophers went 4-1 during the stretch, but the loss to Illinois, coupled with scares against Wisconsin and Iowa, has Hebert hoping the team has learned its lessons on its way to Champaign.

“We’re playing loose again,” Hebert said. “But it needs to stay that way.”

If Minnesota has looked out of sync at any point this season, it was against the Illini. Sixteen blocks by Illinois’ massive front line and a combined 36 kills from middle blocker Lisa Argabright and outside hitter Sue Webber sent Minnesota scrambling to its videotapes this week.

“We watched a lot of film of ourselves from that match,” middle blocker Bethany Brafford said. “We found a lot of holes in our block we need to fix.”

Former Gophers middle blocker Stephanie Hagen stopped by the Sports Pavilion on Wednesday, and Minnesota quickly put the 2000 second-team All-American to work.

The 6-foot-3-inch Hagen played with Minnesota’s second team during scrimmages, receiving most of the sets and giving the Gophers a preview of what the 6-foot-5-inch Argabright will bring this weekend.

Illinois is ninth in the conference standings and in the midst of a four-match losing streak, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Minnesota’s practices this week. The Gophers’ focus on the Illini mirrored preparations for the postseason they aren’t allowed to talk about.