U sweeps weekend foes for first conference wins

Jeff Barthel

Early in game four against Illinois on Saturday night at the Sports Pavilion, Minnesota outside hitter Erin Martin found herself in perfect position for a powerful kill. The ball bounced around Gophers defenders and wound up finding the jet stream of Martin’s arms as she wound up.

Sure enough, Martin was able to execute by smashing the ball off an Illinois defender and off into a nearby pep band.

“Erin was on fire tonight,” teammate Trisha Bratford said.

The point made the game score 10-2. The point also finished a strong start to a convincing game four victory – Minnesota took the game by a 30-19 score and sealed the match victory as well.

Martin and Bratford led the way Saturday night. Their efforts helped Minnesota (9-7 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) sweep an impressive winning weekend after Friday’s win over Northwestern.

“We played with that sustained energy and commitment to competitiveness that we were searching for,” coach Mike Hebert said.

Minnesota defeated the Illini (11-3, 2-2) in four sets (30-21, 24-30, 30-21, 30-19). It was a dominant win over a team that features a tough front court.

Illinois entered the weekend with a 3.09 blocks per game average, leading the Big Ten.

“The net result was that we held (Illinois’ Lisa) Argabright down to a fairly low hitting percentage,” Hebert said.

Argabright, a 5-foot-10 middle blocker, came off a great performance in a victory over Iowa on Friday night. She put up 17 kills and owned a .483 hitting percentage against the Hawkeyes.

Argabright ranked second in the Big Ten in hitting percentage entering the weekend, averaging a .409 clip. But against the Gophers, she did not perform up to her billing.

Argabright hit a paltry .083 Saturday night, had only five kills and two blocks.

“Lisa did not play well,” Illinois coach Don Harden said.

His star player concurred.

“I just didn’t have it (Saturday),” Argabright said. “We just had a tough time slowing them up and obviously the numbers showed that.”

Argabright was referring to the play of Minnesota junior outside hitters Erin Martin and Trisha Bratford.

“Tree and Erin just went up there and wailed the ball,” freshman middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “They were really aggressive tonight.”

Martin led the team with 22 kills, while Bratford had a team-high .432 hitting percentage. Bratford was also second on the team with the 21 kills she earned Saturday.

Martin’s 22 kills were a new career best. She topped her previous high of 20 kills, set against Northern Iowa earlier this year.

The 6-foot junior also did well in the team’s 34-32, 30-26, 34-32 win over Northwestern on Friday night.

Martin had a team-leading .364 hitting percentage as the team hit .233, 63 points higher than the Wildcats. But Hebert was especially pleased with the team finally entering the win column in conference play.

“We won tonight,” Hebert said. “But we will use the win to build up our confidence gram by gram.”

Once again, the Gophers were led by Martin and Bratford.

Martin led the team in hitting, while Bratford had a team-high 18 kills in the straight set victory.

Besides Martin and Bratford, the team also received solid play from junior defensive specialist Lisa Reinhart. The junior from White Bear Lake, Minn., received 10 digs Friday night.

Minnesota will take its 2-2 Big Ten record to Iowa on Wednesday. They will travel to Iowa City to take on a slumping Hawkeyes team (5-9, 0-4) that is still looking for its first Big Ten victory this season.