Two crucial road wins keep Minnesota spikers on pace with Wisconsin for Big Ten title

Brian Stensaas

In 1967, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Ringo Star put lyrics to the song, and as a group, The Beatles made the tune famous.
Now, 33 years later, don’t be surprised if the Minnesota volleyball team is humming the chorus of the song. And while the Fab Four meant the song to be a love tune, the Gophers might see it as a way of saying `thanks’.
Eighth-ranked Minnesota (25-2, 14-2 Big Ten) did away with Illinois and Purdue this weekend on the road, but more importantly it was what the Gophers’ friends from Pennsylvania did Saturday night in State College. Down 2-1, Penn State rallied to defeat Wisconsin in five games.
The loss gave the Badgers two defeats in the conference and tied them with Minnesota for the conference lead with four matches remaining.
Should both Wisconsin and Minnesota win out, both teams will receive Big Ten trophies and both teams will wear conference championship rings. The Badgers would, however, hold the tiebreaker for the automatic NCAA bid due to their two defeats over the Gophers.
Still, Minnesota is in the driver’s seat on a straight path to its first conference title.
“We have to focus on our half of the court,” Nicole Branagh said.
“We have to make whatever place we’re in ours and keep playing the game we’ve been playing.”
At first glance, it would seem the Gophers have a relatively easy road to the end.
The four matches remaining are against teams who have already suffered defeat at the hands of Minnesota.
Ohio State is the only team left on the schedule which put up a fight against the Gophers the first time around. But Buckeyes setter Katie Virtue has not practiced in three weeks.
As a result, the team lost two matches this weekend against Michigan and Michigan State — the two teams Minnesota faces this Friday and Saturday at the Sports Pavilion. The Gophers travel to Columbus on Nov. 25.
But a second look will show these teams with one thing on their minds: Beat Minnesota and be the spoiler.
Minnesota got the weekend play started Friday night in Champaign, downing Illinois in four games 15-5, 15-10, 17-15, 15-6.
After quickly running through the first two games, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert went with his younger core for the third game. Though they dropped the frame, Hebert knows experienced needs to be gained win or lose.
“I believe in the need for players to get experience in Big Ten conference matches,” he said. “You can’t do that in practice. You got to get the younger players out there with the crowd on the road.”
Minnesota contained the Illini’s (13-14, 4-12) biggest threat in Betsy Spicer, allowing her to accumulate just 10 kills. Taking advantage of Illinois’ weak passing, the Gophers notched 13 service aces, including a career high five from Stephanie Hagen.
“Stephanie played extremely well all weekend for us,” Hebert said. “She slumped a little in the past few weeks, but she really turned the jets on for us.”
The trip to Illinois marked the fifth venture back to Huff Hall for Hebert, where he led the Illini for 13 years. It was the first time he faced his former team with none of his recruits on the floor.
Hebert also said for the first time it felt like his team was just another opponent on the court.
Saturday night at Purdue (11-17, 3-13) the Gophers took care of business early and never looked back en route to handing the Boilermakers their 13th Big Ten loss of the season 15-9, 15-12, 15-5.
Branagh led the team with 26 kills and coupled with her 25 against Illinois stands 74 kills shy of the Big Ten and school record for kills in a career. Former Gopher Katrien DeDecker holds the record with 2,300.
“I’m having a lot of fun this year and just trying to do what I can do,” she said. “I think I’m making smarter shots and as a team we’re more consistent. Everything is on the up and up.”
Hagen finished the weekend hitting above .300 both nights and collected 35 kills. Lindsey Berg added to her Big Ten lead by serving six aces, giving her 34 on the season.
“We were solid all weekend, a business-like effort both nights” Hebert said. “It’s tough to win on the road and win the matches you’re supposed to win.”
For the moment, The Beatles hit does justice just fine.
But the Gophers wouldn’t mind singing a sweeter song, made famous in 1977 by Freddie Mercury and Queen.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]