Defense helps Minnesota hold top spot in latest coaches poll

The No. 3 team beat the No. 2 team over the weekend, but the Gophers stayed No. 1.

Kent Erdahl

For Minnesota’s volleyball team, this week’s USA Today/CSTV Top 25 coaches poll was sponsored by the number three.

But all that mattered was number one.

After three-game sweeps in all three of their matches last week, the Gophers kept the No. 1 ranking for the third straight week when the poll was released Monday.

Although they looked dominant throughout the week, the Gophers were nearly bumped from the top spot by last week’s No. 3, Washington. The Huskies remained undefeated by beating then-No. 2 Southern Cal, whom Minnesota lost to in five games earlier this year.

“I was mildly surprised that we stayed on top,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “It’s not something we focus on, but it’s a lot of fun and something coaches strive for their whole careers.”

With wins over Cincinnati, Michigan State and Michigan last week, Minnesota improved to a perfect 12-0 in September. The Gophers won eight of those matches in three-game sweeps.

Before the weekend, Hebert called September – which included the start of the Big Ten season – a critical time for establishing a “signature” for the team.

By the end of the weekend, Hebert said that signature was clear – the Gophers win with defense.

Minnesota held its three opponents to a miniscule .030 hitting percentage and recorded 96 digs in its match against Michigan on Saturday.

That defense is fittingly anchored by yet another reference to the week’s apparent sponsor. Libero Paula Gentil and defensive specialists Marci Peniata and Lisa Reinhart are known as the “Three Amigos.”

Gentil earns honor

The Big Ten further recognized the Gophers’ defense Monday when it named Gentil the player of the week.

Although the whole defense received praise from the Minnesota coaching staff, Gentil shined in nearly every statistical category.

Against Cincinnati on Sept. 20, Gentil tied a career high with four service aces in a game.

Saturday, Gentil broke her own school record for digs, with 39 against Michigan in just three games. Her previous high of 37 came in the Gophers’ only loss this season, against the Trojans.

“It’s pleasing to see the conference award defensive play,” Hebert said. “Her accomplishment (Saturday) was very unique and special.”

Gentil said she was simply excited to see how well everyone played defensively. She said she had never seen so many of her teammates play well on defense. She even complimented Michigan for making the record possible.

“It’s really fun to play a team that can dig the ball too, because you get the ball coming back a lot more,” Gentil said. “Nothing was hitting the ground, and it was really exciting for the players and especially the fans.”

Big test for No. 1

Next weekend, the Gophers will have their biggest challenge of their season and ranking yet.

They will travel to No. 16 Ohio State on Friday and No. 4 Penn State on Saturday.

“Year in and year out, that trip is the toughest in the conference,” Hebert said. “On top of that, they’re both nationally ranked and undefeated. I, as well as probably any other coach, would be happy with a split.”

Although Hebert doesn’t necessarily expect to retain the ranking, outside hitter Erin Martin said she looks forward to the challenge of defending it.

“It still puts a lot of pressure on us, because Penn Sate and Ohio State will be gunning for us,” Martin said. “But I think it will make us play a lot harder.”