Second-place spikers at home for key Big Ten weekend

After defeating two ranked foes last week, No. 25 Minnesota hopes to further climb the Big Ten standings.

by Jeff Barthel

Minnesota’s volleyball team is 13-7 overall and 6-2 in conference play. After a win Saturday, the team briefly pulled into a tie for the best Big Ten record.

The team’s current success is because of lately exhibited efforts – wins over two ranked opponents, No. 15 Penn State and No. 23 Wisconsin.

No. 25 Minnesota now faces two opponents it swept in four games last season. The Gophers play Michigan (13-6, 5-3) and Michigan State (12-6, 4-4) at home this weekend.

“Their high is definitely good enough to beat us,” coach Mike Hebert said about Michigan. “They are both very well put-together teams.”

Hebert renders these comments after the team’s arduous journey facing heavy competition early on.

The Gophers opened the season with four straight losses and battled some difficult opponents.

At a tournament in Hawaii, they lost all three matches to ranked teams – second-ranked Hawaii, 20th-ranked Louisville and ninth-ranked UCLA.

After a home loss to unranked Kansas, they were given a straight-set spanking by third-ranked Florida in Gainesville.

“Coming off of a slow start,” Gophers captain Cassie Busse said, “it’s good to see we had the potential to overcome that.”

Busse’s comments came after her team claimed a straight-set victory at Penn State on Saturday -the second time in history that Minnesota defeated the Lions on the road.

After a 4-0 road trip, Minnesota returns home for a match against Michigan.

Hebert described Wolverines middle blocker Erin Moore as a dynamic player and one of the best in the conference.

Moore’s coach tends to agree.

“She’s not only a great player,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “She’s the heart and soul of our team, personality-wise.”

Moore leads the Wolverines with 298 kills and 93 blocks. She also comes armed with a .284 hitting percentage.

The Gophers counter with Busse – 319 kills and a .300 hitting percentage – but only hit .232 as a team.

Minnesota will face a Wolverine team that is 3-0 on the road this season.

Rosen is confident about his squad, but knows the task that lies ahead in facing the defending Big Ten champions tonight.

“We’re having a great year,” said Rosen. “(But) we’ve got to play very well to beat a team as physical as Minnesota.”

Like Michigan, Hebert will expect strong play from Michigan State’s middle blocker.

Jenny Rood, a 6-foot-2-inch senior who leads her squad with a .378 hitting percentage, ranks third among Big Ten players.

“She’s like Moore, only bigger,” Hebert said.

Leading the Gophers’ middle blocking attack is freshman Meredith Nelson.

Having not faced either opponent, Nelson did not say much about Michigan or Michigan State. However, she seems pumped to come back to Minnesota and play on her team’s home surface, the Sports Pavilion.

“After two long weeks on the road,” Nelson said, “it’ll be nice to play at home in front of our great fans.”

This year, the Gophers have drawn attendances averaging 2,205 in their first eight matches at the Sports Pavilion.

Fans can look to see those numbers increase as second-place Minnesota tries to reclaim at least a share of the Big Ten lead this weekend.