Two prodigal children returned to their homes and former communities over the weekend with something to say about Minnesota’s volleyball team.
Middle blocker Bethany Brafford returned to Columbus, Ohio – just an hour from her hometown of Mansfield – hoping to finally show those who watched her at Madison High School she made the right choice by spurning Ohio State for Minnesota.
Assistant coach David Boos returned to Bloomington, Ind. – where he served as an assistant for Indiana’s volleyball team from 1999-2001 and helped the team to just its third NCAA tournament appearance in 1999 – and demonstrated to Hoosier faithfuls that the Gophers were worth his move to Minneapolis.
But as a team, No. 8 Minnesota dwarfed Boos’ and Brafford’s homecomings by ascending to a place it hasn’t occupied all season: a room for one in the conference penthouse.
Minnesota (22-3, 9-1 Big Ten) scored two huge wins, including a five-game comeback victory over the Buckeyes, to run its season road record to 12-0.
“Rarely in coaching can you say you’re getting absolutely everything a team has, but I can say that now,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said.
“They’re gutting out these come-from-behind wins, and I can’t expect any more from them.”
The Gophers took sole possession of the conference lead when Wisconsin dropped Penn State in five games Saturday night.
On Friday night, the Gophers defeated preseason conference favorite Ohio State (9-9, 3-6) at St. John Arena for the first time since Oct. 22, 1999, by rebounding from a 2-1 deficit to win in five games.
Leading Indiana (17-7, 5-5) two games to one on Saturday, Minnesota dug itself out of a 24-18 hole to win the fourth game 30-27.
Middle blocker Jessica Byrnes and outside hitter Trisha Bratford shared the team lead in kills Saturday night with 17. Aside from posting a career-high in kills, Byrnes hit .519 against the Hoosiers.
But Bratford was the story of the weekend, adding 18 kills against the Buckeyes and tallying four kills and a block in game five to give the Gophers a 15-6 win.
“She transformed the team with her hitting,” Hebert said. “Without that, I don’t think we win either match this weekend.”
For the weekend, Bratford posted 35 kills, nine blocks and a .351 hitting percentage, a far cry from the persistent errors that left her buried on the bench early this season.
“It was a confidence thing,” she said. “I was playing a little tentative at times, but I feel like my game has come back.”
Hebert and his staff have been high on Bratford since she signed a letter of intent out of Reseda, Calif., three years ago. Up until now, Bratford had failed to deliver on her enormous potential. Her awe-inspiring vertical and dominant above-the-net presence have been quelled in stretches of inconsistency and untimely errors.
This weekend, however, while her teammate and her coach returned to the states of their former glory, Bratford cemented a restoration of the game she displayed in high school, even though she was more than 2,000 miles from California.
And like Bratford, the Gophers are a team feeling more at home on the road all the time.