Gophers come up huge in tourney

Kent Erdahl

Before Minnesota’s volleyball team took to the floor for its first home match of the season Friday, the Gophers unveiled the first Final Four volleyball banner to drape from the rafters of the Sports Pavilion.

By the end of this weekend’s Diet Coke Classic, the Gophers looked poised to add another banner to their collection.

During a weekend in which the top four teams in the nation all went down, the No. 5 Gophers dispensed of No. 15 Kansas State and No. 4 Florida in five-game matches on consecutive nights.

As if that wasn’t enough, Minnesota battled fatigue during its final match Sunday afternoon and put away rival Northern Iowa in four games.

In doing so, the Gophers showed they are a national power and could have made a claim for their first No. 1 ranking in program history.

“What’s been determined by the team is that we can be competitive at the very top level,” coach Mike Hebert said. “We’re the only top-five team to not have lost this week, and it means that we can compete, in my opinion, with anyone.”

Defensive consistency

There were many standouts and key plays throughout Minnesota’s three victorious matches this weekend, but no aspect of Minnesota’s game was more consistent or dominant than its defense.

More specifically, it was the Gophers’ digging and passing off of serves, that kept the team close throughout the tournament.

The Gophers continued their season-long streak of out-digging their opponents, and their service defense allowed only seven aces in 14 games.

“In volleyball circles, that’s extraordinary,” Hebert said. “You take care of that ball control part of the game, and you’re always in it.”

No defensive player kept the Gophers closer than two-time All-American libero Paula Gentil. The junior recorded 93 digs throughout the three matches, and she earned all-tournament honors for her efforts.

Gentil also helped Minnesota separate itself from Northern Iowa in game two of their match Sunday. After the team looked visibly fatigued until the midway point of that game, Gentil sparked Minnesota with several diving digs and two service aces.

“Whenever you get an ace, it’s kind of like a free point, and I think we just got in the moment and came back,” Gentil said. “We used that to turn the game to our side.”

Just enough offense

Over the weekend, Minnesota didn’t hit the ball as dominantly or consistently as it had previously, but that didn’t mean the Gophers’ hitters failed to rise to the occasion.

Jessica Byrnes came up with a lot of Minnesota’s clutch kills throughout the weekend, and she remained the one Gopher who hit the ball very efficiently.

The junior never received more than 26 attempts in a match, but she recorded double-digit kills against each opponent and racked up a .408 attack percentage.

“Jess Byrnes probably came up with more critical kills than anyone on the offense for us tonight,” Hebert said after Sunday’s win over Northern Iowa.

Minnesota’s big outside hitters Trisha Bratford and Erin Martin only hit more than .200 once during the entire tournament, but the two carried most of the offensive load. And in the fifth game of the match against Kansas State, the two seniors would not be denied.

Martin ignited the Gophers first, with five kills, but she was forced to hand off the hitting to Bratford because of a rotation. No matter, Bratford finished the game with two straight kills, giving her six for the game.

“Your adrenaline is so up there that you want to stay in,” Martin said. “But I had total faith that (Bratford) could put it away.”

The next night, Martin repeated her impressive performance by recording five kills in the fifth game of the Florida match.

That performance helped her earn tournament MVP honors, finishing with 62 kills despite never hitting over .200.

“I think that (Bratford) and I took it upon ourselves that when they needed us, we were able to put the ball away,” Martin said.

It’s that type of leadership and resolve in long matches that Hebert said separates Minnesota from its competition.

“What I’m finding is that this team is capable of playing in a lot of long matches, and we’re going to win more than our share,” Hebert said.