Volleyball splits in final weekend, earns NCAA bid

Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert sat alone at a table in the Williams Arena club room while his players congregated around a big-screen TV to listen to the NCAA tournament bracket announcement.
Hebert’s look was a puzzled one as the Gophers were given a four seed in the Central region and will have to travel to Los Angeles this weekend.
But the Gophers’ disappointment of not being able to host the tournament was short-lived as Hebert grabbed a microphone and congratulated Minnesota (25-8, 15-5 Big Ten) on its improvement from a year ago. Last year, the Gophers fell out of tournament contention with a late-season slump.
“The team dedicated itself to a very hard offseason,” Hebert said. “Every single athlete put a great deal into an effort with a goal of returning to the tournament this year.”
And return they will.
Minnesota will face Cal State-Sacramento in the first round Friday. The winner will take on the winner of the Southern California and Hofstra game.
But before the Gophers could start packing for La La Land, they had to finish up business in the Big Ten earlier in the weekend.
Saturday night Minnesota fell to Indiana (19-10, 10-10) in a long five-game match, 15-7, 14-16, 15-12, 1-15, 15-13.
“We were not sharp,” Hebert said. “We were a tired volleyball team and it looked that way.”
Despite being off their game, the loss had a few bright spots for the Gophers.
Stephanie Hagen and Charnette Fair each had career-high kill totals with 23 and 14 respectively.
Hebert said he was happy to see the duo get hot before the tournament begins.
“We ran our middle attack as impressively as we have all year,” Hebert said. “I was glad to see that because it’s part of our offense that has been inconsistent for the last month and a half.”
Nicole Branagh pitched in 18 more kills and Fair led the team with eight blocks in the tough loss.
The night before, Minnesota avenged a loss earlier in the year to Illinois. The Gophers defeated the Illini 15-12, 15-6, 16-14.
The Gophers found themselves in early deficits in all three games, but were able to fight back and sweep the match.
Branagh led the Gophers attack over Illinois (16-10, 12-8) with 24 kills, while Hagen pitched in 11 more.
Defensively, Fair rejected a career-high 11 blocks for the Gophers to hold the Illini in check.
Branagh said Minnesota didn’t do much different this time around against Illinois, except the Gophers were able to execute better.
“We followed the game plan,” Branagh said. “Even when we were down, we showed character and were able to come back.”
The win gave Minnesota 15 Big Ten wins — the most in school history. It also clinched second place in the conference.
The NCAA bid and second-place finish are a last laugh for the Gophers: Minnesota was picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten in the preseason coaches’ poll.
“They obviously exceeded the expectations of the coaches in the Big Ten,” Hebert said. “But I don’t believe the team exceeded its own expectations.”

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]