Gophers head southeast for first defense of No. 1 ranking

Minnesota will play three matches in two days in the North Carolina tournament.

Kent Erdahl

Before Minnesota’s volleyball team hosted the Diet Coke Classic last weekend, coach Mike Hebert pointed to the Gophers’ seven remaining nonconference matches as the key to securing a top seed and home-court advantage for a regional round of the NCAA Tournament.

A week later, Minnesota has three wins in three tries, and its first No. 1 ranking in school history.

The Gophers head to North Carolina for three more matches this weekend, and they’ll be defending that ranking for the first time.

So, how close are the Gophers to securing home court advantage now?

“I think we have to at least split these next four matches,” Hebert said of this weekend’s tournament and Monday’s home game versus Cincinnati. “Then I think we’ll have to finish in the top four in the Big Ten, and I think that will probably give us a pretty good spring board into a top-16 seed – which would ensure a hosting gig.”

A split in the next four matches might not seem like asking a lot from the team that took over the No. 1 ranking from Southern California, which held the title for 22 consecutive weeks.

But Minnesota’s next four matches come in four days, and fatigue, as well as the competition, will pose a challenge.

“It’s going to be extremely important that we go out there and play our best,” Trisha Bratford said. “Now that we are ranked No. 1, the saying is, ‘now you have a target on your back.’ “

Minnesota squeaked out every win it had last weekend, defeating then-No. 15 Kansas State, No. 4 Florida and Northern Iowa in a total of 14 games.

This weekend, the Gophers will face No. 20 Loyola Marymount, Rice and North Carolina. The matches against Loyola Marymount and the Tar Heels will both be Saturday.

“I scheduled this way for that reason, to give us practice and to sustain our energy level and our focus,” Hebert said. “Those are tremendous challenges no matter how good you are. (The Tar Heels) are waiting there with their home crowd, thinking, ‘Hey we get a ranked team in here, and we can pull off the upset.’ I know what they’re thinking.”

With all the competition, Hebert said he isn’t worried about his players getting caught up in being ranked No. 1. He even said he reminded them to enjoy it.

Senior setter Lindsey Taatjes said she and her teammates had addressed the ranking, but their play will dictate their success.

“We’re just looking to come out and play the best we possibly can without any let-downs,” Taatjes said.

Hebert said he doesn’t expect to be disappointed by the effort of his senior-laden team.

But just in case, he gave them a little motivation.

“I reminded them that Rice University, on Friday at 4:30 eastern time, is actually going to come out on the court wanting to beat us. They’re not just going to lie down because we’re No. 1,” Hebert said. “If that doesn’t wake you up, I don’t know what will.”