Gophers look to rebound at conference-leading Nebraska

Minnesota will play at the NU Coliseum for the first time in five years.

Charlie Armitz

At first glance, itâÄôs a simple story line.

No. 19 Minnesota (8-8 Big Ten), an inconsistent team with an interim head coach, travels to play Wednesday at No. 4 Nebraska (14-2 Big Ten), a volleyball powerhouse that has dominated the Big Ten in 2011 under the leadership of two-time NCAA champion head coach John Cook.

A closer look at the 2011 Big Ten season reveals that nothing has been simple âÄî and anything can happen.

The Huskers were 11-0 in the conference on Oct. 29 when four-time defending champion Penn State defeated them in four sets at home.

The next day, Lauren Cook âÄî the teamâÄôs star setter and coachâÄôs daughter âÄî was arrested on suspicion of leaving the scene of an injury accident and ticketed for driving with a suspended license.

The Huskers suspended Lauren Cook for her next two matches. She returned last weekend, but the team didnâÄôt look the same in SaturdayâÄôs straight-set loss at then-No. 10 Purdue.

Minnesota, too, is coming off a disappointing loss. The Gophers fell in straight sets to then-No. 24 Michigan on Sunday âÄî their fourth straight-set loss in the Big Ten this season.

âÄúWe werenâÄôt very sharp on Sunday,âÄù interim head coach Laura Bush said. âÄúI would imagine that weâÄôre sharper on Wednesday, but we need to find a rhythm on our side of the court to put ourselves in a position to play consistent volleyball.âÄù

Minnesota has shown signs of brilliance this season âÄî like its match at Illinois on Oct. 29, when it swept the then-No. 3 Illini a day after it was upset in straight sets by unranked Northwestern.

Two weeks earlier, the Gophers had a 2-0 sets lead at home against then-No. 5 Nebraska before falling in five sets.

Counting those matches and two early-season sweeps against then-No. 4 Texas, Minnesota has won 15 sets against top-five opponents and lost nine. ThatâÄôs three straight-set wins and three five-set losses against the best teams in the nation.

Playing at NebraskaâÄôs home gym, though, is a whole new challenge.

The Huskers havenâÄôt lost at home in two years. The last time they were swept at home was Oct. 20, 1989.

Nebraska has won 36 of 44 sets at home in 2011, including 15 of its last 17.

Because the Huskers are new to the Big Ten this season, playing at the NU Coliseum âÄî which regularly seats more than 4,500 fans for Nebraska volleyball âÄî will be a new experience for every player on the GophersâÄô roster.

Minnesota last played at the NU Coliseum on Sept. 10, 2006, two years before Bush joined the program as an assistant. The Gophers lost in four sets.

âÄúNo oneâÄôs been there before, so I think everyoneâÄôs kind of excited to play there,âÄù sophomore Tori Dixon said. âÄú[Bush] said it would be pretty crazy in there âÄî a lot of fans, a lot of heckling. WeâÄôve just got to be ready to take all the negative criticism and be ready for the energy that they bring.âÄù

With Bush leading the program in 2011, MinnesotaâÄôs mixed results have been a product of inconsistency, especially on offense.

On Sunday, Bush benched starting freshman setter Kellie McNeil in the third set, replacing her with Mia Tabberson.

Tabberson led a late GophersâÄô run when she served two aces and set Dixon on three consecutive points, each of which resulted in a Dixon kill.

Dixon leads the team with a .353 hitting percentage but has been set less since McNeil became the starting setter Oct. 28. McNeil has tended to favor setting MinnesotaâÄôs two star outside hitters, Ashley Wittman and Katherine Harms.

Bush said she would like to see better offensive distribution from her setters, which includes setting the teamâÄôs two middle blockers, Dixon and Ariana Filho, more frequently.

Dixon, meanwhile, said she was focused on her own on-court relationship with the teamâÄôs setters.

âÄúI think itâÄôs always a focus for me to continue to be involved in the offense, growing the connection with Kellie and Mia both,âÄù Dixon said. âÄúBut if Ashley goes out and gets 40 kills a night, IâÄôm perfectly fine with that too.âÄù

Tabberson was the starting setter in the GophersâÄô 3-2 loss to Nebraska on Oct. 15. Wittman and Harms were set a combined 112 times in that match, and committed 23 attack errors. Dixon and Filho made 10 errors on 45 attempts.

Since then, the GophersâÄô play has remained inconsistent âÄî but less so than before, senior libero Jessica Granquist said.

âÄúI feel like weâÄôre more of a stability team. The competitive nature within our gym has increased since [losing to Nebraska],âÄù Granquist said. âÄúWeâÄôre more competitive as a unit, and we have more experience.âÄù