Spikers run Big Ten win streak to eight

by Ben Goessling

Erin Martin’s voice was barely discernable as the Gophers outside hitter addressed the media after Minnesota’s volleyball team’s match against No. 13 Wisconsin on Sunday.

It probably had something to do with Martin screaming so loud she could be heard over all 5,383 fans who crammed into the Sports Pavilion.

But when you post 17 kills, six blocks, six digs, and help your team toward the first season sweep of its archrival since 1995, a little noise is in order.

“It was so much fun out there today,” Martin said in a gravelly voice. “Even when we got behind, I knew we were going to win. I just can’t stop smiling.”

Neither could the second-largest volleyball crowd in Sports Pavilion history, as No. 7 Minnesota erased a 2-1 game deficit to defeat the Badgers in five games for the second time this season.

The Gophers (26-3, 13-1 Big Ten) extended their conference win streak to eight, a school record. Minnesota’s wins over Wisconsin (18-7, 9-5) and Northwestern on Friday place the Gophers just three victories away from their first-ever conference title.

Unlike their win in Madison on Oct. 4, in which they were outdone in every statistical category, the Gophers earned a decisive victory Sunday, outblocking the Badgers 16-8, outdigging them 72-64, and outhitting them .322 to .196.

“The first time we played them, I didn’t even feel like we won,” Martin said. “We played so badly. But the feeling is completely different this time.”

Minnesota won the first game 30-22, maintaining a lead of six to eight points for most of the game.

Five of their 18 service errors, however, caused the Gophers to drop game two 30-28.

After dropping game three 30-25, Minnesota won the fourth game 30-23 behind setter Lindsey Vander Well, who dished out 19 of her 66 assists.

Following four frames of nail-biting lead changes, the fifth game was no contest.

“We’re always pumped to play game five,” outside hitter Cassie Busse said. “We wouldn’t want to play five games every match, but we did a good job of coming out strong.”

The Gophers took a 7-1 lead and never really looked back, closing out a 15-6 win in the fifth game with one of Trisha Bratford’s 21 kills.

As the Sports Pavilion erupted, Martin tackled Bratford at center court, culminating a brilliant match from the pair of sophomores.

Martin and Bratford combined for 38 of Minnesota’s 79 kills and 5.5 of its 16 blocks. The duo occupied so much of Wisconsin’s attention that Vander Well was able to set middle blockers Bethany Brafford and Jessica Byrnes for a combined 19 kills.

“You don’t see too many teams with athletes like they have,” Wisconsin middle blocker Lori Rittenhouse said of Bratford and Martin. “They can jump so high, and they’re very difficult to block.”

Freshman libero Paula Gentil posted 18 digs, giving her 413 for the season and the fifth-highest single-season total in school history.

On an afternoon when Minnesota honored 2001 All-Big Ten selections Lindsey Berg and Stephanie Hagen as members of United States Professional Volleyball’s Minnesota Chill, the 2002 Gophers responded with a performance characteristic of a team that might see many postseason accolades of its own.

“We earned this victory over one of the elite teams in the Big Ten,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “I have a lot of respect for Wisconsin, and this is just another tremendous win for our program.”

It’s definitely one to shout about.

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]