Three tough matches await spikers

Ben Goessling

On their way to a 7ñ2 record and a No. 13 ranking in this week’s American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, the Gophers went 2ñ2 against Pepperdine, Stanford, UCLA and Northern Iowa – four topñ10 teams that combined to finish 108ñ17 last year, including a collective 13ñ3 record in the NCAA Tournament.

According to Gophers head coach Mike Hebert, however, this weekend may be the toughest of Minnesota’s season so far.

“All three teams scare me,” Hebert said of the teams in this weekend’s Nike Invitational. “The difference between 3ñ0 and 0ñ3 in this tournament will be an eyelash.”

So who are the Gophers facing?

North Carolina, Ball State and Oregon State, a group that produced only one NCAA qualifier last season.

But Hebert sees a field that could surprise Minnesota. Unlike last weekend’s Diet Coke Classic, in which 1ñ5 Rhode Island was sandwiched between heavyweights UCLA and Northern Iowa, none of the teams invading the Sports Pavilion this weekend will provide the Gophers with a respite.

North Carolina and Oregon State are both unbeaten, and Ball State has won three of its last four after going 0ñ3 in the Radisson Hotel Roberts/Nike Classic, which featured second and fourth-ranked USC and Nebraska.

“All the matches are toss-ups,” Hebert said. “North Carolina looks to be the toughest, but Oregon State is the Pac 10’s surprise team.”

Add a Ball State team which has been to the NCAA Tournament twice in the last three years, and Minnesota faces a potential ambush this weekend.

North Carolina (6ñ0) is ranked 20th nationally, its highest ranking ever. The Tar Heels posted a surprising 3ñ1 victory over defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin on Aug. 31. The Gophers haven’t beaten the Badgers in almost three years.

“They’re a lot better than anybody thought,” Hebert said. “The victory over Wisconsin gained them a lot of respect, and they’ll probably be our toughest match this weekend.”

And the teams Minnesota will face might not even be its toughest opponent inside the Sports Pavilion this weekend.

Last weekend’s tournament saw court temperatures close to 100 degrees, and conditions were so dangerous matches had to be stopped at regular intervals to cool players down.

While temperatures for this weekend are forecasted in the low 70s, a heat wave early this week kept several players from practicing due to dehydration.

And since the Sports Pavilion isn’t airñconditioned, mild temperatures outside still translate to unpleasant conditions inside.

With the roster already thin due to middle blocker Maggie Freiborg’s seasonñending ACL injury and freshman Athena Mallakis’ redshirt status, Hebert fears the toll another toasty weekend could take on his team.

“When the gym is that hot, the challenge is just to survive,” Hebert said. “We had several players close to passing out last weekend.”

If temperatures in the Sports Pavilion climb into the 90s again this weekend, the Nike Invitational could take the depleted Gophers for a rough ride.

In other words, it fits in well with the rest of Minnesota’s non-conference schedule.

“We have a lot of streamlining to do,” Hebert said, “and we don’t want to sink into a comfort level playing teams we should beat.”