Minnesota returns to scene of momentous win

C.J. Spang

It was the match that started Minnesota’s volleyball team on its current run of success.

In 2002 the Gophers’ Big Ten road opener was against Wisconsin, a team they hadn’t beaten in Madison in five years.

Minnesota won a five-game thriller, ending their drought and starting the third-biggest turnaround in Big Ten volleyball history – winning the Big Ten title after finishing sixth in 2001.

The fifth-ranked Gophers have since played in two women’s volleyball Final Fours and have been in the top five in the rankings 18 out of the past 20 weeks. That streak is better than any other team in the country.

Tonight Minnesota travels back to the place the program turned the corner when the Gophers open Big Ten play against the 10th-ranked Badgers at 7 p.m. Minnesota finishes its conference-opening weekend with a trip to Evanston, Ill., Saturday for a 7 p.m. match with Northwestern.

“I think the difference between the No. 5 team and the No. 10 team is very small in both the rankings and the overall level of play,” coach Mike Hebert said. “If I was an oddsmaker, I’d be favoring them in this matchup.”

Despite being on the road in a notoriously tough place to play, the Gophers think their preseason play has prepared them for Big Ten competition.

“I think the preseason was really valuable for us because we played different types of teams,” junior middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “It was also good for us because being one of the top teams in the nation, teams are coming out gunning for us and that’s going to happen every night in the Big Ten.”

Minnesota apparently wasn’t in that frame of mind this past Saturday, and was routed in their first game against Texas Christian.

Hebert said many of the players told him they were not as mentally prepared as they should have been for the match. But they realized how much more focused they have to be for Big Ten play, because the Big Ten arguably is one of the toughest conferences in the country.

“I’m not worried about it,” sophomore Southern California transfer Sarah Florian said. “I’ve heard the crowds are bigger and there is more energy than the Pacific-10, so I’m excited for it.”

The Gophers hope their confidence and their depth can carry them through the Big Ten season.

Minnesota added six freshmen and two transfers, all of whom have proven themselves on the court.

“I think this year we have a lot of people ready to play and excited to play,” Nelson said. “That’s going to be a huge advantage for us.”