One up, one down on volleyball road trip

by Sarah Mitchell

On the road for the first time during the Big Ten season, a split for the No. 22 Gophers volleyball team was marred by a no-show loss to No. 6 Wisconsin. Minnesota slipped by Iowa 3-2 Friday, but the team’s composure disappeared on Saturday in a 3-0 loss.
Playing in front of a Field House crowd nearly six times larger than the collection of fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Friday night, the Gophers (12-3 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten) were defeated by the Badgers in what sophomore outside hitter Sonja Posthuma called the team’s sloppiest loss of the season.
“We just weren’t competitive,” Posthuma said.
The lack of effort caused the Gophers to suffer perhaps their most disappointing defeat so far. Two weekends ago, the Gophers were defeated by No. 1 Penn State 3-0, but were not bothered by the tally to the loss column because of the intensity displayed on the court. But on Saturday night, a fatigued Gophers team was beaten convincingly by the Badgers.
In game two, the Gophers had a comfortable 12-5 lead, but six service errors allowed the Badgers a 10-0 scoring run.
Sophomore outside hitter Sonja Posthuma, who recorded eight kills against the Badgers (14-1, 3-0), said nerves were a bigger opponent for Minnesota than the players on the other side of the net.
“They were trembling and they didn’t know what was going on,” Posthuma said of the Gophers seven-point lead in game two. “We had this team in our hands. We couldn’t believe we played like that.”
The Badgers out-blocked (11-6) and out-killed (53-38) Minnesota; senior setter Colleen Neels led Wisconsin with a .500 hitting percentage and junior middle blocker Kelly Kennedy recorded a team leading 12 kills.
Gophers coach Mike Hebert blamed the breakdown in game two on fatigue more than nerves.
“They just seemed to run out of gas,” Hebert said. “I thought we were mentally fatigued.”
Exhaustion is one of several disadvantages during road trips. But the next time the Gophers and the Badgers square off, fatigue can’t be a Minnesota excuse. The Gophers’ expectations will be high when Wisconsin comes to town Oct. 30.
“We know that we can crack them,” Posthuma said. “They are ranked, but we’ve seen their weaknesses.”
But Hebert disagreed, saying the Gophers need to improve their own game before they can conceivably beat the Badgers at home.
“Right now we aren’t playing well enough to beat Wisconsin if they are playing at the top of their game,” Hebert said.
Minnesota didn’t play it’s best on Friday night, but under pressure played like a ranked team to record a victory.
The uninviting surroundings of Carver-Hawkeye Arena were a factor in the bleak play of the Gophers. Competing in front of a crowd of barely 400 Hawkeye backers, Minnesota squeaked out a 3-2 win.
“We were expecting to come out better than we did,” Branagh said. “We are disappointed. We should have taken care of business. Iowa came out strong and it’s difficult to play in that gym.”
Minnesota energized itself during the most critical point of the match in game five. Freshman outside hitter Yvonne Wichert smashed three kills to boost the Gophers to an 11-7 lead. The Hawkeyes (6-7, 0-4) inched closer, though, to 11-9. Branagh then rattled off three of her career-high 32 kills, padding the lead to 14-9 and making herself the 18th Gopher in history to record more than 30 kills in a match.
Not wanting to fall to 0-4 in conference standings, Iowa ran the score to 14-12. But sophomore middle blocker Erica Glaser killed the game winner.
Despite the narrow victory over the Hawkeyes, three other players joined Branagh in posting double-figure kills — Wichert (20), Baxter (10) and Posthuma (15). Branagh added 11 digs to her 32 kills while Wichert also had a double-double, recording 20 kills and 11 digs.
“It was kind of like the rest of the team’s game, it wasn’t my best performance,” said Posthuma, who also led the team with a .400 hitting percentage.
While a split on the road during conference play is a feat, Minnesota needs to pull together an above-average record in the Big Ten if they want to contend for the title.
A road sweep against Michigan and No. 21 Michigan State next weekend is a high — but perhaps necessary — standard to set, as two teams with very different stories stand in Minnesota’s way. Michigan will be playing with an all-or-nothing mentality desperately needing to improve its 1-3 conference record, and Michigan State is a higher ranked team than the Gophers.
“Every team is going to come out strong,” Branagh said. “I don’t think teams know what to expect, but this team has potential.”