Home-court advantage

Sarah Mitchell

Carver-Hawkeye Arena and the Wisconsin Field House won’t have much in common this weekend, other than they will both host a Big Ten volleyball match.
The home courts of the Hawkeyes and the No. 6 Badgers differ drastically. One is scarcely ever filled — the attendance is helped considerably by ushers and concession stand workers — while the other is usually packed with vocal fans sporting school pride in red and white.
As Minnesota (11-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten) hits the road this weekend, the biggest adjustment might be going from one environment to the other.
The Gophers head to Iowa City Friday night to compete in the most barren volleyball arena in the Big Ten. With guaranteed unobstructed-view seats, it’s best suited for a raucous basketball crowd. But during volleyball season it could be renamed Carver-Hawkeye Cavern; last season Hawkeye (6-5, 0-2) volleyball attendance averaged a little more than 200 fans per match.
“It’s more of like a mental adjustment than anything,” sophomore middle blocker Heather Baxter said. “At Iowa you have to force yourself to play fast and get excited since there is no one there to get excited for you. And the quietness of that gym tries to bring you down.”
Strong wind currents from the arena’s gigantic air conditioner are another Hawkeye advantage. As the home team, Iowa is used to battling its strong currents — serving towards the unit, more power is needed to send the ball over the net, while serving with the current requires less force.
“It’s not so strange that you can’t manage to play, but you have to have your wits about you when you play at Iowa,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said.
On Saturday, Minnesota travels to the Field House, facing another kind of fan condition. Wisconsin (12-1, 2-0) averaged 3,457 fans per match last season, which was third in the nation. With a turnout of Badger faithful like that, the focus might be lacking on the Gopher side of the net.
“The noise from the Wisconsin fans gives you more energy because they are fired up,” Baxter said.
Besides hostile fans, the chance at a second Big Ten upset should be another Gophers motivation. Minnesota knocked off then-No. 14 Ohio State last weekend and Hebert expects his team to play as flawlessly against the Badgers.
“Players don’t get as tight when they go in against top teams,” Hebert said. “They just want to compete and try to pull an upset.”
To make a weekend sweep conceivable, Minnesota trainers might have to work some miracles. For the first time this season, strains have kept big-play Gophers sidelined, preventing the team from practicing at full strength.
The lethal jump serve of freshman setter Lindsey Berg might not be a weapon in the Gopher arsenal. Berg leads the team with 27 service aces, but a hyper-extended elbow could prevent her from adding to that Big Ten leading total anytime soon.
Baxter is still recovering from a kidney infection that prevented her from competing last weekend. The sophomore practiced on Wednesday, but her game availability status is still listed as a day-to-day status.
Sophomore outside hitter Nicole Branagh and sophomore middle blocker Erica Glaser are dealing with aches, but are expected to start this weekend. Branagh is bothered by a pain in her lower legs; Glaser is battling tendinitis in her knees.
Despite the tough week of practice, the Gophers hope to keep their perfect away-game record intact. Minnesota is undefeated on the road this season, but Hebert said protecting the 5-0 away record is a challenge as teams compete with more intensity in conference play.
“Teams play in the non-conference period, but they don’t play the way they play in the Big Ten,” Hebert said. “Everyone gets real serious once the conference starts.”