tate College demons await undefeated volleyball team

by Brian Stensaas

Heading into the second weekend of the Big Ten season, it’s little surprise the No. 6 Minnesota volleyball team is protecting an undefeated conference record.
After doing away with Purdue and Illinois last weekend at the Sports Pavilion, the Gophers (13-0, 2-0 in the Big Ten) join three other conference squads atop the standings with unscathed records. But there’s one team with an unfamiliar slot.
Among the bottom of the standings is defending NCAA Champion Penn State, which is 0-2 in the Big Ten (11-3 overall) after falling to both Wisconsin and Northwestern last weekend. The losses dropped the Lions from No. 3 to No. 11 in the polls.
Perhaps more surprising, the Gophers are still undefeated overall. One win will tie the school record for consecutive wins — a weekend sweep will break it.
And, you guessed it, Minnesota waltzes into Rec Hall tonight where the Lions have a remarkable 87-match winning streak running — an NCAA record.
Gophers coach Mike Hebert is well aware of what his team is up against.
“I expect we’ll be flying into a hornet’s nest,” Hebert said. “I know (Penn State coach) Russ Rose pretty well and I don’t think he’s taking this laying down.
“We’d rather face Penn State without the stirring up of the nest.”
While the Lions will be out to protect their great winning streak, the Gophers have more than an unblemished record on their minds.
The last time a Minnesota volleyball team walked off the court having defeated a Penn State team — at home or on the road — Bill Clinton had been in the White House just over 10 months.
In a 13-match span, the Gophers have been swept nine times, winning just four games. But perhaps the tables have turned.
Hebert said the two teams are much different from the two that played in the second round of the NCAA tournament last December when the Lions won 3-0. Particularly, he said his team has vastly improved.
“Our middle attack makes a big difference,” he said. “We didn’t have that really going on that well at Penn State in the Sweet 16.”
On the other hand, Hebert said he is concerned with the team’s passing, which has faltered since early in the season.
“We have a great opportunity,” setter Lindsey Berg said. “But we need to stay focused on ourselves. The crowd will be after us.”
Some may forget, but the Gophers have two matches to play this weekend. Overshadowed by the Penn State affair is the match Minnesota must play against Indiana on Saturday in Bloomington.
Minnesota was beaten in the last match of the 1999 regular season by the Hoosiers. Hebert is hoping his team is not overlooking Indiana.
“I’m not sure our players understand how good Indiana is,” he said. “I’m worried about a letdown. It’s my job to be sure that doesn’t happen.”

ù The last time Penn State lost in Rec Hall was Nov. 24, 1995, at the hands of Illinois coached by Hebert. Minnesota’s longest home match winning streak is seven. The current streak is six.
ù Both matches this weekend will grace the radio airwaves. Tonight’s match will air live at 6:30 p.m. while Saturday’s match will air on tape delay starting at 9 p.m. Both will air on AM-630 WDGY.

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