Gophers go two for two in Michigan

Minnesota took five games to beat the Wolverines and swept the Spartans.

Kent Erdahl

Call them the three amigos, part two.

During a weekend in which Minnesota’s volleyball team’s normally outstanding defensive trio of Paula Gentil, Lisa Reinhart and Marci Peniata – also known as the three amigos – began out of sync, a trio of offensive players sparked the Gophers to a five-game win Friday at Michigan and a dominating three-game sweep Saturday at Michigan State.

With a combined 108 kills and .332 hitting percentage over the weekend, middle blocker Meredith Nelson and outside hitters Trisha Bratford and Erin Martin made a case for a nickname of their own.

With the original amigos struggling with their defense and passing in front of a season-record Michigan (18-9, 8-8 Big Ten) crowd of 2,058 Friday, Nelson, Bratford and Martin rallied the fifth-ranked Gophers (24-4, 13-3) from a two-games-to-one deficit, and they pulled out the seesaw five-game match 28-30, 35-33, 19-30, 30-20, 15-12.

“We’ve become used to immaculate ball control by the amigos,” Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert said. “When they were having problems, I think it shook our team to the core.”

Things got so bad for the Minnesota defense after game two Friday that Hebert pulled Peniata, a defensive specialist, in favor of Bratford for back row defense. Peniata returned and looked improved a game later, but it was Bratford and Martin who kept Minnesota in the game.

When the Gophers had trouble with passing, the setters often tossed the ball to the two senior outside hitters. As a result, Martin and Bratford combined for a whopping 135 attempts, yet they still hit .274 with 51 combined kills.

“There was a point at the end of game three where I just looked at (Bratford), and we didn’t really say anything,” Martin said. “We just knew what we needed to do, and, although we were already playing hard, we knew we had to go even harder.”

The Gophers looked to have their hands full again Saturday when they traveled to Michigan State (11-13, 6-10), and the Spartans put the pressure on early in game one.

The Gophers trailed 19-14 at one point, but they came back to tie the game at 22 when Martin racked up two straight kills and a solo block.

Although the last two games were Minnesota routes of 30-20 and 30-16, Hebert said the match could have easily gone much differently if the team hadn’t pulled out game one.

“I think Michigan State has possibly the best collection of athletes in the Big Ten,” he said. “They’re young and just waiting to jell. In game one they jelled and the match probably could have gone either way had they won.”

After the pivotal game one, Minnesota rolled over the Spartans with nine service aces and a team hitting percentage of .388. Nelson led the team with a .542 percentage, tying her career-high kill total with 15.

But Nelson said it was the return to form by her trio of defensive counterparts that made the offense click.

“We talked about ball control before the game,” Nelson said, “and the passers came out there and really stuck it to them.”