Gophers could have chance to play spoiler in second round

Last year, Sweet 16 was all but a sure thing for the Minnesota volleyball team. This year, it’s anything but.

Instead of cruising through unranked teams on their way to another berth, the Gophers will have to fight through two tough matches at Stanford, taking on Sacramento State on Friday in hopes of playing No. 1 Stanford for the opportunity to move on.

But coach Mike Hebert wasn’t even looking at the possibility of Stanford earlier in the week, saying that his team’s focus would be on one team at a time.

“People are asking about Stanford. Stanford who?” he said. “Sacramento State is the only team that I know we’re playing. It’s very important to never look past an opponent, because the minute you do, you’re toast.”

So for now, Minnesota will focus on the Hornets, who present a challenge with their offense alone, playing a style much different than that of the Big Ten conference.

Sacramento State is better known for its strong defense and ability to mix in different shots than the power game the Gophers are used to.

But one problem the Hornets might have is the fact that they rely very heavily on 5-foot-9-inch senior outside hitter Missie Stidham, who will likely be matching up against a double block from 6-foot-4-inch junior Kyla Roehrig and one of Minnesota’s two 6-foot-3-inch middle blockers.

Stidham averages 5.32 kills per game, while senior middle blocker Lindsay Haupt is the second option, with 3.57 kills per game. Against a much bigger team like the Gophers, the tip-shots will the type of offense these hitters will likely go to early in the game.

And that is something senior middle blocker Jessy Jones said Minnesota would be looking for.

“As long as we can pick up those tips and can read their shots, they’ll be in trouble,” Jones said. “There’s no way a 5-foot-9-inch kid can hit around Kyla and either myself or Lauren (Gibbemeyer); it’s not going to happen.”

Should the Gophers beat the Hornets, they would face the winner of the Santa Clara/Stanford match, which will likely be the top seeded Cardinal.

Minnesota has the advantage of having seen and played Stanford earlier this season, losing in four games to the Cardinal, 30-26, 23-30, 26-30, 23-30.

In the matchup, the Gophers were unable to stop junior outside hitter Cynthia Barboza senior middle blocker Franci Girard, or junior middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo. All three threats, along with freshman outside hitter Alix Klineman, will have to be held in check for Minnesota to be successful. But the Gophers’ sophomore libero Christine Tan said she thinks it’s accomplishable.

“We know it’s going to be tough every time we go out and play,” she said. “But in the first and second round, a lot of teams can be upset if they overlook their opponents, and we could be one of those overlooked teams.”

Postseason honors

Senior middle blocker Jessy Jones was named to the All-Big Ten first-team earlier this week, while freshmen Lauren Gibbemeyer and Brook Dieter received Big Ten All-Freshmen team honors.

Jones is averaging 1.63 blocks per game, while leading the team in hitting percentage at .284. Gibbemeyer leads the team with 31 service aces, and is second to Jones with 117 blocks. Dieter’s team-leading 396 kills are the fourth most by a Minnesota freshman in history.