Solid first half of Big Ten play for Gophers

Mark Heise

Following a shaky start to its nonconference schedule, Minnesota’s volleyball team has rebounded well to pick up a 9-1 start in the Big Ten and sits just a game back of Penn State for the conference lead.

Ranked behind five conference teams in mid-September, the Gophers’ first-half run may have been a surprise to many, and while coach Mike Hebert isn’t ready to focus on a conference title, he did admit to the thought crossing his mind.

“To be honest, we don’t really talk about winning a championship,” he said. “We try to focus on the process instead of results. Don’t get me wrong, we would all dearly love a championship, but if we focus on something like that, it just becomes a distraction.”

Since the return of seniors Kelly Bowman and Malama Peniata, Minnesota has won 13 of 14 games and has climbed to No. 12 in the polls. The team’s sole loss came at Penn State on Oct. 6, where the Gophers lost in four games, becoming the first team this season to win a game on the Nittany Lions’ home court.

Junior middle blocker Jessy Jones attributed Minnesota’s success solely to the return of the two starters, but Bowman had a different take.

“The more you play together as a team, the more you realize your potential,” Bowman said. “I think as we played, we’ve been getting better match by match, and that’s been an important part to our success.”

With the recent play, the Big Ten title may be in sight. But there are still many obstacles along the way, including road matches against No. 13 Purdue and No. 14 Wisconsin.

The biggest obstacle has to be this weekend, however, as the Gophers host No. 24 Ohio State and, more importantly, an undefeated Penn State team ranked second in the polls.

While Hebert clearly stated that a win over the Nittany Lions wouldn’t ensure a conference title and a loss wouldn’t necessarily end Minnesota’s chances, senior middle blocker Meredith Nelson called the Penn State match a must-win.

“If we want to win the conference, it’s a must-win,” she said. “This is a crucial game for us and we really want to be prepared and perform well in that match.”

The match will be the Gophers’ best chance at gaining at least a share of first place and a loss would cripple Minnesota’s hopes. If the Gophers were to lose, Penn State – which has won 41 straight conference matches – would need to somehow lose two Big Ten matches for Minnesota to recover.

But the Nittany Lions may have lost their intimidation factor, as Minnesota has felt extremely comfortable at home this season, riding an 11-match home win streak.

“It’s always exciting to play in front of your home crowd, and this weekend won’t be an exception,” Nelson said. “We’re going to have a lot of excited fans and it honestly helps.”

With the conference on the line for both sides, there will be little room for error. Both teams understand the importance of the win and, when talking about the matchup, Jones said she was looking forward to the challenge.

“It’s on,” she said. “We’re going to have great competition all weekend and, as far as Penn State goes, they know if they lose the Big Ten is up for grabs, while they could seal the title with a win. Neither team’s going to take it lightly.”

Peniata honored

Senior libero Malama Peniata averaged 6.5 digs per game and 1.2 assists per game last week, earning the Big Ten Defensive Volleyball Player of the Week award. It was the second time this season Peniata took the award.