U volleyball nets sweet-16 appearance

LOS ANGELES — The Beach Boys are famous for their line “I wish they all could be California Girls.” This weekend, the women of the Minnesota volleyball team added another verse to the song, “We beat the California Girls.”
On Friday, the Gophers (27-8) sent Sacramento State packing. Then, on Saturday, Minnesota came back from a two-game deficit and pulled off a comeback win over USC to reach the sweet 16.
And how sweet Minnesota’s road to the final 16 was.
The Trojans (21-9) had several match points in the third game that could have sent Minnesota to the hotel early. But the Gophers rallied together and made their way back to win in five games, 3-15, 4-15, 16-14, 15-10, 15-10.
“We reached toward each other,” Minnesota setter Lindsey Berg said. “That is what you have to do when you are down like that. Even when your game’s not going well, you have to reach toward each other.”
Minnesota coach Mike Hebert had fewer words than Berg about the tiring match.
“I am a little fatigued and don’t have much to say,” Hebert said. “I’m not sure I’ve been part of a match where my team has been down so far. To come back from that is an attribute to the way this team has played all season.”
After the match, not many could explain exactly what happened.
“It’s not easy,” Trojans coach Jerritt Elliott said as he soaked in the loss. “I’m still kind of numb about the match, I don’t really know what went wrong.”
It wasn’t that the Trojans fell apart as much as it was the Gophers realized what they were doing wrong and fixed the problem quickly.
Outside hitter Nicole Branagh struggled early, but finally picked it up in the third game. She finished with a Minnesota NCAA record 31 kills.
“I was definitely out of my game the first two games,” Branagh said. “But I’ll hand it to the team for getting me back into it.”
“They rebounded and found a way to win,” Elliot said. “Nicole came on really strong and that turned the match around. We had a hard time containing her.”
As Branagh fed off her teammates’ confidence, Branagh’s teammates used her as fuel — and the desire not to lose on a foreign court — to start the Gophers’ fire.
“We weren’t going to let our seniors lose here in their last game,” Berg said. “This is even more sweeter, winning it here.”
The biggest key was improved passing, for which the Gophers brought in outside hitter Lisa Aschenbrenner to help out.
Aschenbrenner hadn’t played in over a month because of a shoulder injury, but she didn’t miss a beat.
“We needed passing help,” Hebert said. “It was a gamble (to bring in Aschenbrenner), but she felt she was ready. She passed and set the ball really well, and that really helped our team effort.”
And as the Gophers scored the final point, the team effort paid off and the celebration began. As the team rejoiced, Hebert stood on the sidelines and smiled.
The excitement of Saturday, however, would have been a dream if the Gophers didn’t get their offense rolling on Friday.
It didn’t take long for Minnesota to take control of Sacramento — partially because the Hornets (22-10) couldn’t capitalize on the Gophers’ early serving problems.
“We didn’t take advantage of early opportunities and that caused us to lose our confidence and play much more timidly,” Sacramento coach Debby Colberg said. “If we had grabbed control right then, there would have made a difference.”
The Gophers were led on the floor by Berg, who played one of her strongest matches of the year for Minnesota, as she distributed the ball well amongst her teammates — and herself.
The Gophers had four players who had double figures in kills, including Branagh’s 23. Berg also contributed an uncharacteristic four kills herself. Hebert said the game plan was to mix up the offense.
“A number of rallys where we normally go to the left outside, all of a sudden we would boom it with Fair or Hagen (to the in and opposite sides),” Hebert said.
Defensively, the size and the speed of Minnesota contained the Hornets — especially outside hitter Angela Lewis who had only 11 kills on 50 attempts.
The Gophers returned to campus Sunday and received a present.
Minnesota’s prize for its success in L.A? A trip to State College to face top-ranked Penn State on Thursday.
But it was too early worry about that Saturday because the Gophers still had to soak in their weekend.
“We’re going to enjoy this tonight,” Hebert said.

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