During a timeout in the Nike Invitational championship match between Minnesota and North Carolina on Saturday night, Goldy Gopher was up to his usual antics.
Minnesota’s mascot had the crowd in stitches as he dangled a plastic spider from the balcony under the Sports Pavilion scoreboard, causing a woman sitting courtside to jump out of her seat in fright.
But the scare Goldy’s prank caused might be small potatoes compared to the fright Minnesota’s volleyball team is instilling in teams around the country.
The 13th-ranked Gophers romped through their last home tournament over the weekend, sweeping three matches and knocking off two unbeaten teams in winning the Nike Invitational.
“We’re accomplishing many of the things we set out to do,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “All the aspects of our game are coming together.”
You might say that.
Minnesota hit .362 for the weekend, more than 140 points higher than any other team.
The Gophers recorded 21 aces in just nine games, three more than North Carolina managed in 11 games.
Over her first 40 swings of the weekend, outside hitter Erin Martin fashioned 24 kills without committing an error.
And Tar Heels coach Joe Sagula was so impressed with Minnesota, he placed the Gophers at the front of the upcoming Big Ten race.
“They’ll definitely compete for the Big Ten title,” said Sagula, whose 20th-ranked Tar Heels beat defending conference champion Wisconsin 3-1 on Aug. 31. “They are easily the best team we’ve seen so far.”
After watching the Gophers on Saturday night, it was certainly easy to see why Sagula was so impressed.
Instead of the young team which had fallen behind early in several matches this season, Minnesota came out playing like a veteran group, confidently taking over the match as it opened up a 17-6 lead in the first game.
The Gophers won the first game 30-22 and jumped out to an eight-point lead in game two before enduring a scare.
With Minnesota leading 20-16, freshman Paula Gentil tumbled to the ground and was down for several minutes before getting up.
Gentil played the next point but was taken to the locker room and did not return. She was diagnosed as having aggravated the medial tendon in her right knee and will likely miss several days of practice.
After losing Gentil, the Gophers won eight of their next nine points and finished off the second game 30-20.
Overlooked in the first two games as the Tar Heels keyed on Martin, opposite hitter Cassie Busse posted nine kills in the third game as Minnesota won 30-26.
“I still get goose bumps when we do things like that,” Martin said after Saturday night’s sweep. “It feels good to be playing this well.”
Setter Lindsey Vander Well was named the tournament’s MVP, averaging 13.56 assists per game and running an offense that featured four players with nine kills or more in Friday’s victory over Oregon State.
“The hitters helped a lot this weekend, and I was able to mix things up well,” Vander Well said.
Martin and Busse joined Vander Well on the all-tournament team. Martin hit .525 for the weekend and averaged 3.89 kills per game, and Busse led the tournament in service aces.
The Gophers compete in the University of Denver Tournament this weekend and will see another top-25 team in No. 22 Santa Clara.
At least one player, however, is clamoring for the start of the Big Ten season in two weeks.
“I know I’m getting excited to play in conference,” Vander Well said. “We struggled a little last year, and I think we’re all ready to get out there and show people how good we are.”