Branagh leads volleyball against tougher competition

Brian Stensaas

Though it’s never bad to open a season with a tournament win, last weekend’s Silver Legacy invitational in Reno, Nevada, was a dogfight between a poodle and a pitbull.
The Minnesota volleyball team played the pitbull to perfection.
The team had little trouble with their tournament competition, never giving up more than nine points in a single match and surviving only small leads by opponents.
The best competition Minnesota faced was against Nevada-Reno, picked to finish second in the WAC behind Hawaii. The Warriors are ranked sixth in the polls with three first-place votes. Reno is unranked.
In all likelihood, a different breed will step into the ring this weekend.
After kicking off this weekend’s four match tilt in Atlanta with a stop at Georgia State tonight, the Gophers will move on to the Georgia Tech Classic Friday against a higher caliber of competition.
The marquee matchup features Minnesota, a Sweet 16 team a year ago, against 1999 Final Four representative Pacific. In this week’s USA Today/AVCA poll the Gophers are 10th, the Tigers nipping at their heels in 11th.
“They certainly have the experience factor over us,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said of Pacific. “But we do get to play them on a neutral floor. In my estimation, that will give us the clearest answer to the question, ‘Are we for real?'”
If Pacific wipes Minnesota’s slate clear, host Georgia Tech only muddies the water. The Yellow Jackets’ roster has a bit of a new feel, with 10 new players, four of whom are of international descent.
“Georgia Tech is a scary team,” Hebert said. “You never know what you are going to get into with that. They won all of their matches last weekend, they could be scary.”
Coastal Carolina rounds out the four team lineup.
Top ten again
After almost 11 years, Gophers volleyball made a return trip to the nation’s top ten this week.
Minnesota’s No. 10 ranking in the polls is the first top-ten ranking since October 10, 1989. The Gophers are the second of five Big Ten teams currently ranked in the poll. After Penn State (2nd) and Minnesota, Wisconsin (15) Michigan State (16) and Michigan (25) round out the rankings.
Branagh honored
Nicole Branagh’s efforts in Reno went beyond her tournament MVP award.
Her 42 kills against five errors in 77 attempts last weekend were good enough for Big Ten Co-Player of the week for September 4. Branagh, now a five-time recipient of the award, shared the honor with Betsy Spicer, middle blocker for Illinois. The two were both unanimous preseason Big Ten selections. Branagh’s five Big Ten player of the week honors is tops in Minnesota history.
Thumbs up?
Outside hitter Lisa Aschenbrenner, who has been out of action since August 25 with a broken left thumb, could be cleared to play as early as tomorrow, Hebert said.
Aschenbrenner will have an X-Ray on the thumb today and if the result is clear, she will join the team in Atlanta on Friday.
Backup setter Carrie Noble — the only other injured Gopher — still suffers with back problems and a stress fractured foot.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]