Gophers volleyball wins first in Big Ten

by Sarah Mitchell

With the opening of the Big Ten’s volleyball season this past weekend, the value of adding tallies to the win column has suddenly increased.
Immediately following Friday’s 3-0 loss to No. 1 Penn State at the Sports Pavilion, Gophers coach Mike Hebert dubbed the Saturday night match against No. 14 Ohio State as the most important of the season.
Despite the pressure to win, No. 24 Minnesota (11-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten) upset the Buckeyes 3-1 upset to prevent a 0-2 conference start.
“What a great victory for our program on a night where we had everything to gain,” Hebert said.
Following the 3-0 loss to Penn State (12-0, 2-0) Friday night, Hebert labeled the Ohio State match as the most important of the season. In one of the nation’s most competitive conferences, Hebert said he feared an 0-2 Big Ten start.
Minnesota opened the Ohio State match showing control on defense and offense. The Gophers coasted to a 15-3 victory over the Buckeyes in game one behind two Susan Shudlick service aces and 12 total team kills.
Ohio State tied the match at a game apiece with a 15-11 victory. Buckeyes outside hitter Angelee Abbring recorded seven kills, as Ohio State outblocked the Gophers 4-2.
But the momentum switched again with the opening serve of game three. Similar to the match’s first game, Minnesota exploded for sizeable lead, 10-0. Sophomore outside hitter Nicole Branagh and freshman middle blocker Stephanie Hagen each recorded five kills as the Gophers held on for a 15-11 win.
Minnesota jumped out to another lead in the fourth game, but the Buckeyes battled back. Then a kill from Branagh and service aces from freshman outside hitter Yvonne Wichert allowed the Gophers to regain their composure — and control of the match. Minnesota won game four 15-11.
The 11-11 fourth-game score made some fans nervous, but freshman middle blocker Stephanie Hagen knew the Gophers were ready to end their short losing streak.
“I was pretty sure that we would win,” Hagen said. “I knew that if we just got out passing and played in control, we would win.”
The play of Hagen and sophomore middle blocker Erica Glaser became critical when sophomore middle blocker Heather Baxter was sidelined with a kidney infection.
“What (Baxter’s injury) meant is that if either Steph or Erica had bad nights, I didn’t have the move to make,” Hebert said.
Fortunately for Hebert, Hagen might have played the game of her career. The freshman led Minnesota with a .545 hitting percentage.
The Gophers attack was their downfall on Friday night. Against Penn State, Minnesota accumulated a meek .098 hitting percentage. Minnesota also committed 34 errors, which Hebert blames for the loss.
“When you play Penn State they make you feel as though you’re confined,” Hebert said. “They don’t make mistakes. Everything you get you have to earn. And then at the same time if you are giving away points with your own mistakes, that’s what makes the match lopsided.”
Branagh had a strong showing, recording 20 kills — five more than Penn State middle hitter Lauren Cacciamani’s team-leading 15.
But it wasn’t the Lions’ kills that led to the Minnesota loss. The Gopher defense struggled, primarily against tipped balls.
“I think maybe we just expected them to pound every ball because they’re Penn State,” Branagh said. “We should have expected those tips. We’ve been talking about that all week. Those were free balls and we shouldn’t have given them up.”
Minnesota will have to deal with the road and hostile crowds for the next two weekends. The Gophers are scheduled to travel to Iowa Friday and Wisconsin on Saturday. Winning in the Big Ten is a challenge in itself, even more so on the road.
“Playing at home is worth about two points a game,” Hebert said. “Players feel comfortable at home. They have the same routines. There is a fatigue factor on the road, an unfamiliarity factor.”
But the team is heading into the looming road trip with a positive attitude.
“We’re 11-2, we just beat the 14th ranked team,” Hebert said. “We’re happy campers.”