Gophers rally to beat OSU, split road trip

The Gophers fell in four sets to Penn State but came back from a 2-0 deficit to beat Ohio State.

Megan Ryan

The Gophers volleyball team earned expected results against Penn State and Ohio State away this weekend.

But it did so in unexpected fashion.

No. 10 Minnesota took one set off No. 3 Penn State before falling in four sets Friday. It then had to grind out a five-set victory over No. 15 Ohio State on Sunday.

Minnesota lost the first two sets to Penn State before staying alive with a close third-set win. But the Nittany Lions ended the match in the fourth at 25-21.

Middle blockers Tori Dixon and Dana Knudsen were integral in the match, both defensively and offensively.

Senior outside hitter Katherine Harms regularly leads the Gophers’ attack. But Penn State limited her to eight kills with four errors and a .129 hitting percentage.

Dixon and Knudsen, along with outside hitters Ashley Wittman and Daly Santana, picked up the slack.

Wittman led Minnesota with 12 kills followed by Dixon with nine. Dixon had Minnesota’s top hitting percentage at .364.

“We look at what they’re going to do and their game plan and kind of adjust what we’re doing,” Dixon said. “They just happened to focus on Katherine a lot, and that’s fine. Teams are going to start to do that because she’s good.”

While Dixon’s hitting helped the Gophers take one set, her blocking had the most impact. She had a career-high 11 blocks against Penn State — three solo blocks and eight block assists.

“We work on it a lot in practice. And we just have been working a lot on reading the right things and getting on the right people blocking-wise,” Dixon said. “It just paid off this weekend.”

Minnesota outblocked the Nittany Lions 16-9.

“As a blocking team, we’re making some improvements,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “I do know we got some good stops. And certainly against Penn State, I thought our blocking team was clean.”

But McCutcheon said improvements still need to be made in other areas like receiving serves.

“We got aced quite a bit against Penn State, and that was one of the big differences in the game,” McCutcheon said.

The Gophers had 11 receiving errors — the same area where the team struggled in its 3-0 loss to Penn State earlier this season.

“We definitely struggled a little bit there especially because they have Micha [Hancock],” Dixon said. “She’s a good server, and we knew that coming in there.”

Hancock made seven of her team’s 11 aces.

Minnesota’s diverse hitting again played a role in its dramatic win at Ohio State.

The Gophers dropped the first two sets 25-23 and 25-21 before coming back to win the next three sets 27-25, 25-13 and 15-12.

Five Minnesota players recorded nine or more kills, while the Buckeyes relied largely on three main hitters.

“I think what I love most about this team is that we go past just one weapon,” Knudsen said. “Katherine [Harms] is a great weapon, but we have a lot of other good hitters. So any other night we can go away from her and still be successful.”

Harms led the Gophers on Sunday with 17 kills, followed by Santana with 15, Dixon with 14, Knudsen with 11 and Wittman with nine.

“The weight of our team doesn’t rest on any one athlete’s shoulders,” McCutcheon said.

Ohio State’s Mari Hole had 26 kills. Teammates Kaitlyn Leary and Emily Danks followed with 17 and 11 kills, respectively.

The Buckeyes trio came out strong and helped Ohio State take a 2-0 set lead. Dixon said it took some time for the blockers to catch on to their opponent’s speed.

“Their system in general is hard to block against,” Dixon said. “Ohio State’s a lot faster than we normally run and a lot faster than most teams in general.”

Knudsen said the Gophers weren’t surprised to face an uphill battle.

“We came here expecting to go five,” Knudsen said. “I think the team was really calm. We really trust each other. … And I don’t think that ever waivered.”

McCutcheon said the ranked Buckeyes, who upset No. 4 Nebraska last weekend, were capable of beating Minnesota.

“We’re surprised when it’s not a battle,” McCutcheon said. “You go into this conference knowing that every weekend you’re going to be fighting for your life — especially on the road.”

The Gophers are now 11-3 in the Big Ten.