Minnesota kicks off Big Ten’s second half

The Gophers wrap up a stretch of eight of 10 matches on the road.

Charlie Armitz

In recent years, MinnesotaâÄôs volleyball teamâÄôs Big Ten season has been a tale of two halves.

As the No. 15 Gophers head to Illinois and Northwestern to begin the second half of 2011, theyâÄôre hoping that will be the case once again.

Minnesota (12-7, 5-5 Big Ten) is in the same position as a year ago, when it held a .500 record through 10 Big Ten matches before finishing the conference season 9-1.

âÄúWeâÄôre 5-5, and that isnâÄôt really where our goals were for the first half of the Big Ten [season],âÄù senior Hailey Cowles said. âÄúThe good thing is that our goals are still achievable for the second half.âÄù

Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush said she believes her team will improve in the second half, but recognizes that matching last yearâÄôs achievement will be an uphill battle.

âÄúIn the second half last year, Lauren Gibbemeyer returned from a broken wrist,âÄù Bush said, referring to the GophersâÄô two-time All-American. âÄúThat was a significant upgrade. That wonâÄôt happen this year.âÄù

What will happen for Minnesota is a very favorable schedule âÄî the Gophers play eight of their remaining 12 conference matches at home.

Minnesota hasnâÄôt lost a home match in the second half of the Big Ten season since Oct. 27, 2007.

The Gophers will begin their second half of conference play on the road against Northwestern and No. 3 Illinois.

The Illini defeated the Gophers in five sets Sept. 23 at the Sports Pavilion. Illinois was also ranked third at the time, while the Gophers were ranked ninth.

A week later, the Illini moved up to No. 1 in the national rankings when they won in five sets at Penn State.

Now back to No. 3 after a road loss to Nebraska, Illinois has established itself as the conferenceâÄôs second-best team, and a contender for both the Big Ten and NCAA titles.

Cowles said the team needs to serve and pass better to beat the Illini âÄî something it didnâÄôt do in Minneapolis.

âÄúWhen they were [in Minnesota] they served us tough,âÄù Cowles said, âÄúwhich is something weâÄôre focusing on too âÄî serving tough and trying to pass well out of tough serves so we can have more than one option.âÄù

Bush added that the team will be better offensively because of the impact of outside hitter Katherine Harms, who did not see court time against the Illini the first time around.

At 2-8, Northwestern finds itself on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The WildcatsâÄô only Big Ten victories have come against the conferenceâÄôs worst teams, Iowa and Indiana.

Northwestern did win the opening set 25-12 on Sept. 25 at Minnesota. It also pushed Penn State to five sets Oct. 5 in University Park, Penn.

âÄúEvery team [in the Big Ten] is good, and you need to play well every night to get a win,âÄù Bush said. âÄú[Northwestern] will play well in Welsh-Ryan Arena on Friday.âÄù

Minnesota was out-blocked 34-14 in its two September matches against the Wildcats and the Illini. Since then, the GophersâÄô blocking has improved, but remains a weakness.

The serve-pass game also needs improvement, which Bush said will be a focus in the teamâÄôs second half.

âÄúWe need to become crisp in our offense, our serving and passing game still needs to become more consistent, and as a team [we need to] continue to work better with one another on the court,âÄù Bush said.

Senior Ariana Filho was on the same page.

âÄúWeâÄôve got to get better at everything,âÄù Filho said, âÄúA little more blocking, a little bit more putting passes in system, a little bit more attacking in transition. Each little area can always get tweaked and pushed a little bit more, and thatâÄôs mainly what we need to focus on.âÄù