Gophers open Big Ten play in Illinois

Minnesota beat Illinois, last year’s NCAA runner-up, in the teams’ last meeting.

Minnesota outside hitter Katherine Harms spikes against Miami on Sept. 1 at the Sports Pavilion.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

Minnesota outside hitter Katherine Harms spikes against Miami on Sept. 1 at the Sports Pavilion.

Megan Ryan

For the Gophers volleyball team, nearly a month of nonconference play will culminate in the start of the conference schedule against Illinois and Northwestern on Friday and Sunday.

The Gophers 9-2 record is essentially wiped clean once the team travels to the Prairie State.

But Minnesota isn’t letting the increase in competition change its perspective.

“We understand that conference play has begun and that that’s certainly a more meaningful phase of the season,” said head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “But our goals are not just restricted to the conference.”

He said he sets a standard in his gym and doesn’t want that to change depending on the caliber of opponents or the part of the season.

“We don’t slack off against nonconference teams and all of a sudden turn it on for conference teams,” McCutcheon said. “That’s not how it works here. We believe that greatness is a habit, not a switch, so we’re trying to create some good habits.”

Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said she thinks starting conference play on the road can be an advantage to her team.

“We’re going to have to get used to playing on the road in Big Ten anyway,” Dixon said. “So it’s almost better to start off away so our younger players especially have a chance to … figure out what it’s about early rather than later in the season.”

The Gophers will play Illinois first. While the Illini were the runners-up at last year’s NCAA tournament, they haven’t looked as solid so far in 2012.

No. 20 Illinois went 6-4 in nonconference play after graduating its two best outside hitters last year — All-Americans Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch.

 “I think they’re figuring things out like we’re trying to,” McCutcheon said. “I know they’ll be strong at the end, so in some ways I like it that we’re playing them early. I think they’ll only continue to improve as the season goes on.”

Illinois’ lineup isn’t completely depleted — redshirt freshman outside hitter Jocelynn Birks earned Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Week awards Monday.

Junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman said she didn’t know much about Birks, but she knew the team would consider her a threat.

She said she’s excited to try to repeat the feat Minnesota accomplished last season when it won at No. 3 Illinois in straight sets. It was the highest-ranked opponent Minnesota has ever bested.

 “I know they’ll be gunning for us this time, and it’ll make it all that more fun,” Wittman said.

The win against Illinois came after the Gophers were upset at Northwestern in three sets a day before. Wittman said the team hopes to make up for that stumble this trip.

The Wildcats, however, may pose a challenge, as they are undefeated in the preseason at 11-0 and received votes for a national ranking this week.

Dixon said the Gophers won’t underestimate Northwestern.

“They obviously are used to winning, so we can’t come in there and take it lightly,” Dixon said. “They’ll be coming in there expecting to win and they’ll play to win because they know what that feels like.”

The last undefeated team Minnesota faced, Kansas State, defeated them in five sets last weekend.

But McCutcheon said this situation isn’t comparable, as an exhausting tournament schedule may have affected his team’s performance against Kansas State.

Wittman said the excitement level on the team has increased with the start of conference play.

“That’s where you really get into it and you start seeing all these really, really good teams,” Wittman said. “Your season finally gets started.”