Spikers find groove in time for national tournament run

by Brian Hall

After another disappointing loss to Michigan State last weekend Minnesota’s volleyball team knew it must improve.

The Gophers also knew they needed to begin winning more than once every two matches to have a shot at returning to a third-straight NCAA tournament.

Minnesota swept two matches over the weekend at the Sports Pavilion and has now won four straight overall.

The Gophers defeated Minnesota-Duluth (30-21, 30-26, 30-16) on Sunday and Purdue (30-12, 30-19, 30-23) on Friday to end a six-match homestand.

“I don’t think we are quite there,” senior Lindsey Berg said. “We are getting there. Our confidence is building game by game and these four wins were wins that we absolutely needed to be considered for the tournament. We have one more against Northwestern that is critical.”

Previous to its four-match winning streak, Minnesota (17-9, 8-6 Big Ten) had split its last three weekend series.

Meanwhile, Gophers coach Mike Hebert said his team is only two wins from where he projected it would be before the season, stating that the two Spartans losses were his most surprising.

“Our two matches against Michigan State were in my opinion the poorest we played all season,” Hebert said. “But, our young players are getting better and our seniors are playing fabulously well. I won’t be surprised whatever happens.”

Four wins later, Minnesota seems to have solved some of its problem areas.

One of the biggest question marks lately has been outside hitter. Hebert might have found another body to solidify the Gophers outside attack.

Redshirt freshman Trisha Bratford received her first extensive playing time of the season over the weekend and responded with five kills and no errors against the Boilermakers and reaching double figures with 11 kills against Minnesota-Duluth.

“Her hitting has never been a question mark,” Hebert said. “The question mark has been can she pass. The past two matches she has passed the ball as well as any outside hitters on the roster. That is the most exciting thing for me to see.”

Against the Bulldogs, Minnesota hit .386 as senior Stephanie Hagen led the team in kills with 12.

Minnesota also served up 14 aces including seven by Berg – one short of her career record.

Against Purdue, the Gophers middle attack was on target as sophomore Bethany Brafford had 11 kills without an error on 17 swings while Hagen once again led the team with 13 kills.

Hebert firmly believes 18 wins will earn Minnesota a NCAA tournament bid. Sitting at the 17-win mark, the Gophers must win at least one of their remaining four matches.

Minnesota travels to Northwestern and No. 6 Wisconsin next weekend and wraps up the regular season with a home set against No. 9 Ohio State and No. 13 Penn State the following weekend.

“If we go into that final weekend with 18 wins, my personal feeling is we are probably in the tournament,” Hebert said. “A win over either of those teams would probably solidify us and get us a little bit better of a seed.

“I am looking to go into that weekend with 18 wins and deliver an upset.”