Sweeps and help leave Minnesota tied for first

Kent Erdahl

There wasn’t much fanfare surrounding Minnesota’s volleyball team’s pair of three-game sweeps over the weekend. In fact, the most exciting thing to happen to the Gophers came courtesy of another team.

No. 2 Minnesota swept Big Ten bottom-feeders Indiana and Purdue, and the Gophers moved into a tie for first place in the conference thanks to an Illinois sweep of undefeated Ohio State on Saturday.

A week after Minnesota handled the Illini in four games in front of approximately 11,000 at Williams Arena, it dominated a Buckeyes team that knocked Minnesota from the No. 1 ranking in the nation three weeks ago.

The loss locks the Gophers (20-2 overall) and the Illini in a tie for the conference lead with identical 9-1 Big Ten records at the halfway-point of the season.

“It feels good, because it kind of takes away the feeling that Ohio State is unbeatable,” coach Mike Hebert said. “Now, it’s a sprint to the finish line.”

If the second half is a sprint, it looks as though the Gophers got a running start. Minnesota has lost only three of 21 games during a six-match winning streak, which includes the pair of sweeps at Indiana and Purdue.

The blueprint for the Gophers’ current streak of success was apparent in their wins over the weekend. Minnesota relied on a defensive effort that stifled the Hoosiers’ and Boilermakers’ attacks by blocking and digging them out of the game.

Hebert highlighted the blocking strategy of assistant coach Dave Boos and the execution of the entire team – which held both opponents to sub-.100 hitting percentages – as the keys to the two victories.

Junior middle blocker Jessica Byrnes tied a season high with seven blocks in the match against Indiana.

“It’s something that I’ve really been working on to improve my game,” Byrnes said. “I’ve been working on it a lot at practice, and it’s exciting to see it working in the games.”

Setters Lindsey Taatjes and Kelly Bowman contributed to that defensive effort, along with nearly every other area. In addition to setting up the offense, the two combined for 43 digs and 35 kills over the weekend.

“I love playing defense, so it’s great to be able to get so much action,” Taatjes said. “(On offense) Kelly and I are really working to get each other more involved, and our communication was just great this weekend.”

Hebert said he couldn’t think of anything that didn’t go well this weekend. But he pointed to libero Paula Gentil’s shoulder injury as an example.

After suffering the injury to her serving shoulder against Illinois the week before, Gentil served with her left arm as a precaution. Hebert said he was pleased to see how well Gentil could serve with her opposite arm.

Despite Gentil’s effort, the Gophers said they’re even more pleased with the loss by Ohio State, which serves them even better.

“We found out after the match, and the team was really excited,” Byrnes said. “The loss means we can win the conference by ourselves. It’s up to us, and we’re excited, because we can control our fate.”