Spikers keep eyes on prize

Brian Stensaas

When Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert took the reins five years ago, he stated he would bring the program its first Big Ten championship.
And while the feat of hanging the first championship banner in the Sports Pavilion is only four match-wins away, the team is being careful to not look ahead too much. Not only do the eighth-ranked Gophers (25-2, 14-2 Big Ten) play host to Michigan and Michigan State this weekend and head to Iowa and Ohio State next week, but they are starting to get hints of where they will be placed in the NCAA tournament.
Cliche warning: Minnesota is taking things one match at a time.
“We’re running on two tracks,” said Hebert, who just signed a new five-year contract to stay on the bench for Minnesota. “As a team, we’re just thinking about Michigan right now. The danger at this point in the season is that you can begin to think ‘what if?’ It’s my job to make sure that we continue to stay focused.”
Friday night the Wolverines (17-10, 7-9) come to town fresh off defeating Ohio State 3-0 and beating Michigan State in five games.
When the Gophers played in Cliff Keen Arena last month, they had little trouble with Michigan, winning in three games. They allowed only one player to reach double digits in kills (Chantel Reedus had 10) and limited the Wolverines to a .101 hitting percentage.
Michigan State tells a bit of a different tale. The Spartans put up a fight at Jenison Field House Oct. 20 catching the Gophers off-guard to win the first game 15-6 before Minnesota regrouped to win the final three and ultimately take the match. However, Michigan State (15-10, 8-8) held a 64-58 kill advantage and limited the Gophers to a .169 hitting percentage.
“Both opponents this weekend are playing at a very high level.” Hebert said. “We’re hoping for a top-16 seed (in the NCAA tournament). In order to do that, we need to go 3-1, maybe 2-2 the rest of the way.”
The best head-to-head
Fans attending the match versus Michigan Friday will get the rare treat of seeing the reigning Big Ten co-players of the week to battle.
Minnesota’s Nicole Branagh and Michigan’s Alija Pittenger shared the honor following last weekend’s matches. Pittenger, a senior outside hitter, notched her first career triple-double as the Wolverines upset then-No. 25 Michigan State last Wednesday night. She followed up the performance Saturday night with 10 kills and 15 digs in Michigan’s upset over the Buckeyes. She was limited to three kills and 10 digs last month against the Gophers while Branagh smacked 23 kills in the match.