Perfection period begins as Gophers play Michigan pair

Kent Erdahl

They’ve finished the hard part, now they just need to be perfect.

With three losses and a third-place standing in the Big Ten, Minnesota’s volleyball team likely needs to win its remaining six matches to compete for a conference title.

That starts this weekend when the fifth-ranked Gophers (22-4, 11-3 Big Ten) travel to Michigan and Michigan State.

After splitting two home matches with a loss against No. 4 Penn State and a win against No. 8 Ohio State last weekend, Minnesota now faces two much-improved opponents with unconventional offenses.

Assistant coach David Boos said the Wolverines (17-8, 7-7) and Spartans (10-12, 5-9) present challenges because they rely on quickly timed sets to their middle blockers. The catch is that Michigan attacks primarily in front of the setter, and Michigan State hits from behind.

“There are a couple of different ways you can block it, and we’ve been working on both all week,” Boos said. “Michigan and Michigan State definitely are each a unique challenge.”

To defend well at the net, Minnesota’s middle blockers have been working extra hard, and they could prove to be key during one of the last road tests the Gophers face this season.

Although both opponents have improved since Minnesota swept them in September at the Sports Pavilion, middle blocker Meredith Nelson said the Gophers have also improved and are ready for the challenge.

“I think it’s just different for us just because we don’t practice against a quick set every day,” Nelson said. “But I think our practices have been going well and we’ll be ready.”

Regardless, Michigan State still has a remote chance of landing a spot in the NCAA Tournament, and it will need an upset of a team such as Minnesota to make it.

Michigan has a much better chance of earning a berth in the tournament, a fact that’s dangerous considering Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said it’s one of the best Michigan teams he’s seen in recent years.

“They’re probably playing for their lives in the NCAA Tournament,” Hebert said. “That always makes for a dangerous opponent.”

Four recruits signed

The Gophers secured four recruits during the early signing period Thursday.

Hebert said Rachel Hartmann, Kyla Roehrig, Kelly Schmidt and Katie Vatterrodt signed national letters of intent to play for Minnesota next season.

Three of the recruits

are ranked in the PrepVolleyball.com top 20 high school seniors, and all four of them are among the top 35 graduating high school seniors in the

nation.

The class also includes Madelaynne Montano, a transfer student from Miami-Dade Junior College, whom the Gophers inked during last spring’s signing period.

When Montano signed, Hebert called the Cali, Colombia, native “perhaps the most dominating hitter to ever sign with our program.”

Montano, who was named a first-team NJCAA All-American in 2003, has also played for the Colombian national team.