Volleyball surprises through midseason

As the University hits the midpoint of the semester, the Minnesota volleyball team has reached the halfway point of its 20-game Big Ten schedule.
So it’s time for the midseason report card.
The Gophers have had a somewhat surprising season so far, at least through the eyes of some experts. They own a 17-5 overall record and an 8-2 Big Ten mark — their best record through 10 Big Ten matches ever.
Twenty-second ranked Minnesota is tied for second in the conference with Illinois and is two games behind top-ranked Penn State.
The Gophers were picked to finish sixth in the preseason Big Ten poll but have proved they are worthy of a higher ranking.
Here are some of the reasons why Minnesota has played well:
Hard outside hitting
Minnesota’s outside hitters have provided the bulk of the Gophers offense this season. Junior Nicole Branagh leads the conference with 5.33 kills per game and is sixth in the nation in kill average.
Branagh has earned two Big Ten player of the week awards and one national player of the week award this season.
Sophomore Yvonne Wichert has also done a solid job for the Gophers. In six of the 10 conference matches, Wichert has had at least 10 kills and 10 digs.
The wall of blockers
Perhaps the biggest change from last year’s Gophers team to this year’s is the improvement in the blocking game.
Junior Charnette Fair is third in the Big Ten, averaging 1.46 blocks per game. Fair has seven or more blocks in six conference matches.
Senior Linda Shudlick — who missed all of last year with a torn ACL — and sophomore Stephanie Hagen have also added strength to the front of the net.
The trio have helped increase the Gophers’ team blocking average to 3.28 from 2.14 a year ago.
Minnesota already has more team blocks (249) through 22 matches this year than they did all of last season (238).
Dominating defense
The Gophers have held their opponents in check all year. While the Gophers are averaging 13.59 points per game, their opponents are only managing to score 9.49.
Minnesota leads the league in kills (12.26) and assists (11.25) allowed per game. The Gophers are also second behind Penn State in opponents hitting percentage.
Minnesota has survived injuries like any strong team does.
Berg and Hagen each missed matches earlier in the season, and the team wasn’t affected. Senior Susan Shudlick replaced Berg and did not miss a beat in anchoring the Gophers attack.
One down …
With a successful first half complete, Minnesota will begin the second half of conference play Friday night against Michigan State.
Coach Mike Hebert believes repeating an 8-2 Big Ten mark will be a tough one.
“We’re under no illusions about the second half,” Hebert said. “It’s a little bit easier when you are a surprise team. Now all of a sudden we have a target on our backs and people come after you. It will be more difficult the second time through.”
Unlike some teams in other sports, Hebert and the Gophers aren’t afraid to look ahead to the NCAA tournament.
“We think about it all the time,” Hebert said. “That’s our goal. We don’t suppress those things; we talk about them on a fairly regular basis. If you’re going to win, you have to act as if you are going to be a winner.
“Our players should be expecting to be in the tournament. They should be disappointed when they’re not.”
And if all goes well for Minnesota, don’t be surprised if the Gophers host preliminary round NCAA tournament matches at the Sports Pavilion in early December.

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected].