Gophers dig in for pair of home matches

Lower-tier Big Ten teams Purdue and Indiana come to town Friday and Saturday.

Kent Erdahl

There are many reasons why this weekend is special for Minnesota’s volleyball team, the least of which involves the Gophers’ opponents.

During a weekend that pits No. 5 Minnesota against two teams with sub-.500 conference records – Purdue (14-12, 7-9 Big Ten) at 7 p.m. today and Indiana (8-19, 2-14) at 7 p.m. Saturday – the matchups take a backseat to the location.

The Gophers (24-4, 13-3) have played at home just three times in their last 10 matches, and when they return to the Sports Pavilion today, they won’t take this homecoming for granted.

“We feel like it’s a reward for being on the road so much,” coach Mike Hebert said. “That’s been a tough swing. It wasn’t exactly a schedule built in heaven.”

Despite the tough trip, Minnesota posted an 8-2 record in that span. And the Gophers return home this weekend with a chance to make the Sports Pavilion the staging area for a postseason run.

If the Gophers continue their winning ways, the team has a chance to play at home for the entirety of the NCAA Tournament up to the Final Four.

The possibility of playing both a preliminary and regional tournament at home goes far in explaining the caliber of the team and how far the program has come in the past few years.

That progression has been particularly startling for Minnesota’s six seniors, who will be honored during senior night Saturday.

“It’s definitely been a total change from my freshman year when we struggled a lot and had trouble with team chemistry,” senior defensive specialist Lisa Reinhart said. “It’s definitely evolved into an amazing program that has grown to have a lot of respect.”

Hebert said it will be fun to honor the seniors because the program’s rise to prominence is thanks, in large part, to their legacy.

Junior libero Paula Gentil has been close to the senior class from the beginning.

But Gentil also has another reason to look forward to this weekend’s matches.

Her mother, Magaly Jereissati, will be in Minneapolis to see Gentil play in person for the first time since beginning college.

Gentil said the visit will make the weekend extra special, perhaps because it will take her mind off losing six of her teammates after the season.

“Everything I’ve been through, they have too. We’ve been through a lot together, and we’ve learned to like each other,” Gentil said. “It took them a little while to get used to me. It will be interesting to see next year, because some of the new people might be like, ‘Whoa,’ because I’m a little bit different.”