Gophers take on top teams in Nebraska

It’s the fourth time in five years Minnesota has played the top-ranked team.

Mark Heise

As strong as the competition will be this weekend, Minnesota’s volleyball team will have to improve its level of play from last weekend if it hopes to be more successful.

The Gophers head to the Ameritas Players Challenge in Lincoln, Neb. They begin the tournament at 5 tonight against 25th-ranked Cal Poly (5-1 overall).

Minnesota then plays two more games – taking on No. 20 Louisville (4-2 overall) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday and No.1 Nebraska (5-0 overall) at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Sophomore outside hitter Katie Vatterrodt, an All-Tournament selection last weekend at the St. Louis University Billikens Invitational, explained the team goals for this weekend, which didn’t include wins or losses.

“We just want to improve on what we did last weekend,” she said. “Last weekend we had kind of a shaky start, so now we want to come out and give a stronger performance.”

The first team on the docket, Cal Poly, enters the tournament with a 5-1 record, including a big win over No. 7 Texas last weekend. While the Mustangs have shown flashes of brilliance, the consistency has been lacking.

After out-hitting the Longhorns .217 to .167 the team followed it up with a loss to No. 19 Pepperdine, their hitting percentage dropping to .144.

Despite the troubles, one player has remained consistent throughout the season: sophomore outside hitter and Big West Player of the Week, Kylie Atherstone. Atherstone leads the Big West with 66 kills this year and could cause troubles at the net for Minnesota.

Louisville also has had its ups and downs early this season. While the Cardinals boast a 4-2 record, they have only played one ranked team to date, losing to No. 18 Arizona in four games.

More surprising was the five-game loss to Jacksonville State, a team that was later swept by Iowa. The Hawkeyes are expected to finish next to last in the Big Ten.

The player to watch for Louisville will be freshman outside hitter Tatyana Kolesnikova. She leads her team with a 3.6 kills per game average and .329 hitting percentage.

Finally, the Gophers will face Nebraska, the top-ranked team in the nation. It will be the fourth time in five years Minnesota has faced the top-ranked team in nonconference play.

Nebraska comes in on a tear, wining five straight matches and not losing a single game in the process. The Huskers are averaging an impressive .346 hitting percentage while opponents are hitting a dismal .088.

Coach Mike Hebert didn’t seem too worried about the rankings, however.

“We’re not concerned with how people think we’re going to do this weekend,” he said. “Our outlook is just to play better than we did last week and we think that’s good enough to be competitive with any team we play.”

Improvement on last week will have to include an upgrade in the passing game, something that is expected with the return of senior outside hitter Kelly Bowman.

“It’s really important for us to have Kelly back in the lineup,” senior outside hitter Megan Cumpston said. “Kelly isn’t just a good player, but she shows leadership on the court and that will be a huge help this weekend.”

Peniata appeal denied

Coach Mike Hebert would like to have some more senior leadership on the court for this series, but that won’t come in the form of libero Malama Peniata.

Peniata was suspended for six matches Aug. 31 for an NCAA violation stemming from a sand volleyball tournament she played in this summer. Kelly Bowman also was suspended, but only for three games, sitting out last weekend.

Peniata’s appeal was denied this week so she cannot play until Wednesday against Northern Iowa.

“To play without either (Peniata or Bowman) is difficult to overcome,” Hebert commented. “But I thought (freshman libero) Christine Tan played the position very well last week. We’ll be giving her more opportunities this weekend.”