Minnesota’s volleyball team had something to prove this weekend: their 4-0 Big Ten record was no fluke.
Despite the strong in-conference start, the unranked Gophers were still not receiving the respect they deserved — or respect in terms of rankings at least.
Coach Mike Hebert said last week his team didn’t necessarily have to beat No. 23 Michigan and Michigan State to gain respect — they just needed to play well enough to show they could compete with top Big Ten opponents on the road.
Apparently Hebert’s players decided not to settle for just playing well enough.
Minnesota swept through the state of Michigan, defeating the Wolverines 15-9, 15-12, 15-10 Friday. They then went on to pound the Spartans on Saturday 15-7, 15-8, 15-6.
Hebert said the pair of wins should give the Gophers the respect they are looking for, at least through the eyes of their weekend opponents.
“I don’t think (Michigan and Michigan State) could come away with any other conclusion than we’re competitive in the upper division of the Big Ten,” Hebert said. “I’m sure both coaches would not be pleased with their play, but that’s what you say when you don’t win.”
The two convincing victories put Minnesota (15-3 overall) at 6-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in the 18-year history of the volleyball conference. The Gophers have won nine matches in a row since losing to 22nd-ranked Northern Iowa.
Hebert said playing on back-to-back nights can wear on a team, especially when the games are on the road. But the Gophers were able to overcome any problems in Michigan.
“I’m not a big fan of playing back to back,” Hebert said. “It’s very tough emotionally and physically. It’s tough enough at home, but on the road it doubles the degree of difficulty.”
Nicole Branagh said the Gophers have come together on road trips. She added that the team goes out on their opponents’ floor as if they were playing at home.
“We get in (opponents arenas) and start talking it up,” Branagh said. “We get the feeling that it’s our place.”
Branagh hopes Minnesota’s dominant weekend will make their Big Ten opponents take them seriously.
“(Other teams) were looking to this weekend to see if we were for real,” Branagh said. “Sweeping the Michigans was pretty big.”
Winning on the road might give the Gophers more confidence, but Branagh warned that the Big Ten is too competitive for the team to get overconfident.
Minnesota was certainly not overconfident when they completed the two-match sweep Saturday night in East Lansing.
Balanced is a better term. Branagh drove home 13 kills, and Yvonne Wichert had 11 in the win over Michigan State (11-7, 1-5 in Big Ten).
Minnesota got things started Friday night in Ann Arbor. Setter Lindsey Berg — back in the lineup after sitting out two matches with a virus — sparked the victory over Michigan (10-5, 2-4) with 53 assists. Branagh was on the receiving end of most of Berg’s sets and finished with 27 kills.
Being out of the lineup didn’t affect Berg one bit.
“She stepped in there like she had always been there,” Branagh said.
“She didn’t show any effects of her illness,” Hebert added. “She looks like she is back on track.”
John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]