Tough home loss followed by big home win

Robert Mews

The weekend could have been worse for Minnesota’s volleyball team.

However, the team still manages to sit in the same position that it sat in coming into the weekend ” a three-way tie for second place in the Big Ten.

The 17th-ranked Gophers (21-6, 11-5 Big Ten) came into the Saturday match against No. 13 Wisconsin (19-6, 11-5 Big Ten) having lost some momentum after going down to Northwestern (16-10, 7-9 Big Ten) the previous night.

But Minnesota turned it around in a hurry and overcame another slow start to beat the Badgers in four games ” 21-30, 30-25, 30-19, 31-29.

“What happened was, surprisingly, we turned out to be the blocking team,” coach Mike Hebert said.

The Badgers are one of the better teams in the country in rejecting hits ” they rank third nationally with 3.6 blocks per contest. However, it was the Gophers who came out with the block party, as they outblocked Wisconsin 17-7 on the night.

“They have some really tall front-row players,” junior middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “I think that helped just getting used to where their hands were going to be.”

Freshman outside hitter Kyla Roehrig recorded four blocks and two of them ended the last two games of the match.

Junior outside hitter Meghan Cumpston said it isn’t just Roehrig’s ability to block that helps the team, but also her knowledge that aided in the Gophers’ strong blocking night.

“Every time Kyla’s up in the front row with me, she tells me how many hitters are up, what the play’s going to be, where they’re going to hit,” Cumpston said. “If we didn’t have her in there, I would probably be more lost than I already am.”

Nelson led the way for the Gophers with five blocks and finished the match with 14 kills. She said the loss in the first game was a result of errors and bad communication, not so much the Badgers’ play.

“I think the general feeling was just that we knew we had to play better volleyball on our side of the net,” Nelson said. “That would make them feel the pressure and eventually crumble.”

Minnesota also had help after the first game when the Badgers started committing errors on its side of the net. Wisconsin had 37 of its 41 errors after the first game.

Nelson also said the crowd was a factor for the Gophers’ strong play and it can help a team gain momentum.

“You can just feel the energy in the gym,” Nelson said. “And it’s just so much stronger when we’re playing Wisconsin.”

Hebert said Saturday night’s win was a “must-win” for Minnesota to try and qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

“We don’t really talk about winning and losing,” Hebert said, “but this was a very, very important win for us.”

The win might have been more important because the Gophers lost some ground in the Big Ten race after losing to a hot Northwestern squad Friday ” 27-30, 28-30, 30-23, 30-28, 12-15.

Minnesota came out flat in the match and didn’t show much emotion until the third game when junior libero Malama Peniata started taking the game into her own hands.

“She just had fire in her eyes,” senior middle blocker Jessica Byrnes said about Peniata. “Everyone knew that she wanted to win, and you could feel it from her.”

Peniata had a double-double in the match with 17 kills and 27 digs. Both of those numbers are career bests for Peniata, but the effort wasn’t enough to overcome the poor performance by other Gophers players.

“We played one of our poorest matches of the season,” Hebert said. “I just don’t think, offensively, we got anything going.”

The Gophers had five players end the match with negative hitting percentages and finished the night with a .130 percentage on the night as a team.

Despite the poor performance, the Gophers were still within three points of mounting their biggest comeback since 1999.

In fact, the Gophers looked as if they could complete the comeback when they were leading the decisive fifth game 6-1. But errors down the stretch cost Minnesota the win.

“We were looking to feeling very, very good,” Hebert said. “And, to take yourself out of it with attacking errors, those things just shouldn’t happen.”