Gophers take 2 at Marquette Challenge

The No. 9 Gophers volleyball defeated Middle Tennessee state and Marquette in its final weekend of non-conference play.

Charlie Armitz

The No. 9 Gophers volleyball team swept its final weekend of non-conference play, defeating unranked opponents Middle Tennessee State and Marquette on Sept. 17-18.

In doing so, Minnesota (7-2) won the Marquette Challenge âÄî its third consecutive tournament victory in 2011.

This one wasnâÄôt easy, however. The Gophers struggled on Sunday afternoon in a 25-17, 22-25, 27-29, 25-20, 15-12 victory over the host Golden Eagles.

Ashley Wittman had 25 kills, Ariana Filho added a career-high 18 kills and five Gophers had double-digit dig totals as the team overcame a 2-1 sets deficit.

Minnesota held a late lead several times in the third set, but failed to convert on either of its two set points.

Late in the fourth set, however, Minnesota pulled away with a 7-2 run.

In the fifth set, Minnesota stormed out to a 5-1 lead and never trailed after that. Marquette tied the score six times, but Minnesota responded with a point each time.

âÄúThe team was able to bounce back and be resilient,âÄù head coach Laura Bush said. âÄúIt wasnâÄôt one of our cleanest matches. We just [had] to find ways to win.âÄù

Added Wittman: âÄúWe changed our mindsets [after losing the third set]. We started over-communicating at all times, helping each other [and] going all-out on defense.âÄù

The GophersâÄô task was much easier on Saturday, as they defeated Middle Tennessee State 25-12, 25-17, 26-24.

Wittman led Minnesota in that match as well, posting 20 kills and 3.5 blocks while hitting .576. The Gophers hit .433 for the match, their highest mark of the season.

Both Wittman and Filho made the All-Tournament team, with Wittman receiving Tournament MVP honors.

With the weekend sweep, Minnesota ended its nonconference season on a three-match winning streak.

Next up: the Big Ten slate.

The Gophers host No. 3 Illinois and Northwestern on Sept. 23 and Sept. 25. The Illini are among three undefeated Big Ten teams âÄî Purdue and Michigan are the other two âÄî in the AVCA Top-25.

MinnesotaâÄôs nonconference resume may be just as impressive, despite its two losses.

The Gophers are 3-1 against ranked teams, including two straight-sets wins over No. 4 Texas at home.

They are 2-0 in true road matches and both wins have been comebacks from a 2-1 sets deficit.

Finally, Minnesota has played five five-set matches, tied with Nebraska for the most of any Big Ten team.

âÄúOur confidence is really high right now,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúWeâÄôve done an excellent job in close matches. [We] might go five [sets] in every match, and weâÄôre going to have to learn to pull it out in the fifth [set].âÄù

Perhaps the most impressive fact of the GophersâÄô nonconference run is that every starter has improved upon her performance from 2010.

Team kills leader Wittman has increased not only her kills per set average, but her hitting percentage âÄî from .229 to .321.

Mia Tabberson, the GophersâÄô backup setter at the start of last season, may be the conferenceâÄôs top setter through one month in 2011. She averages 12.03 assists per set, up from 10.84 last year.

Jessica Granquist, the defending Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, has continued her excellent play. She averages 4.95 digs per set and received the conferenceâÄôs Defensive Player of the Week honor following the Texas sweep.

Middle blockers Filho and Tori Dixon have each returned from an inconsistent 2010 to produce their best seasons yet. Dixon is hitting a team-best .418 while Filho ranks second on the team at .393.

MinnesotaâÄôs other two starters âÄî outside hitters Katherine Harms and Hailey Cowles âÄî have also improved.

Harms is hitting a career-best .318, while Cowles is returning from an ACL injury that caused her to miss all of last season.

Filho, who has hit above .500 in a match four times in 2011, said the team is also more prepared than ever.

âÄúWeâÄôve played teams that are faster and teams that are bigger,âÄù Filho said. âÄúWeâÄôve [gotten] a good look at everything that we might see during conference [play].âÄù