Gophers travel to take on Michigan and Michigan State

With Saturday’s loss to Penn State, the rest of the matches for Minnesota’s volleyball team have become must-wins to have any hope at a conference title.

And with a weekend on the road against two talented Michigan schools, the Gophers will have their work cut out for them.

Minnesota (16-6 overall, 10-2 Big Ten) faces Michigan State tonight,and heads to Michigan on Saturday. Both games begin at 6 p.m.

One of the biggest questions for the weekend is how the Gophers will respond following the Penn State letdown. Senior libero Malama Peniata managed to find some good parts from the loss however.

“Our challenge is to overcome and work past that hard loss,” she said. “But I think we matured on the court when we played Penn State. Now that it’s behind us, we can focus on trying to finish strong in the Big Ten.”

With Michigan State (15-7, 6-6) surging back into competition with four wins over their last six matches and Michigan’s uncanny ability to step up against ranked teams, coach Mike Hebert and the Gophers have reason to worry heading into the Great Lakes State.

“I’m concerned,” Hebert said. “This is really a key weekend for us and the way both teams are capable of playing, we’re going to have to be at our best.”

Minnesota catches Michigan State on a hot streak, as the Spartans come off of last weekend boasting a pair of three-game sweeps.

The Gophers topped Michigan State in five games at home Oct. 1, but the Spartans will have home-court advantage in tonight’s matchup, enjoying an 8-2 home record on the season.

Michigan State’s high-powered offense will be a challenge as it leads the Big Ten with 17 kills per game and ranks seventh nationally. Outside hitter Katie Johnson ranks 17th nationally with 4.8 kills per game and will once again be the player Minnesota focuses on, as she dropped 22 kills on the Gophers earlier this year.

No. 12 Minnesota will benefit from one apparent Michigan State weakness, as the Spartans have gone 0-4 against ranked opponents this season, losing 12 of 14 games.

If the Gophers can escape East Lansing with a win, they should be able to breathe a little easier on Saturday against the Wolverines.

Michigan (17-8, 4-8) has done nothing but struggle in conference play, handing Indiana its only conference win this season and failing to defeat any Big Ten team with a .500 conference record or better.

The Wolverines do, however, have some talent, as they were good enough to rank 19th early in the season.

Junior outside hitters Katie Bruzdzinski and Lyndsay Miller lead the team with 4.4 and 3.8 kills per game, respectively, but were held to a combined 24 kills and .160 hitting percentage against Minnesota on Sept. 29. The Gophers consequently swept Michigan in three games.

Freshman defensive specialist Christine Tan said she was looking forward to the weekend, calling it a possible turning point in the season.

“I think we’ve matured a lot since the first time we’ve played them, and I’m sure they’ve improved as well,” she said. “I think it’s really important for us to do well coming from the loss (to Penn State). This weekend could decide how the rest of our season is going to go.”