Spikers shake off bland atmosphere with 3-1 win

by Ben Goessling

Though stripped of all the trimmings that made the Sports Pavilion home during the regular season – public address announcer Jim Burns’ booming voice during player introductions, a 50-piece pep band exhorting the team at every turn, and an arena brimming with fans – Minnesota’s volleyball team rediscovered its panache during its first-round NCAA tournament match Thursday night.

The Gophers played out a four-game victory over New Hampshire in front of a season-low 1,398 fans, an undersized band and a contrived neutral setting. But Minnesota looked like the team that lit up the Sports Pavilion in October and November, not the one that dropped two of its last three matches.

Save for a second game in which the Gophers committed eight service errors and lost 30-28, Minnesota overwhelmed the Wildcats by posting its highest hitting percentage (.358) since Sept. 14.

“Game two was all about our serving errors, but other than that, we didn’t beat ourselves,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “It’s a solid win in the NCAA tournament, and we’re happy with it.”

With the win, the 10th-ranked Gophers (31-5) advance to a second-round match-up Friday night with No. 17 Georgia Tech, who handled Florida A&M in three games Thursday night.

Swept in two of its last three regular season matches, Minnesota responded by kicking off the postseason in grand style, racing out to an 8-2 lead and hitting a torrid .500 to take the first game 30-18.

After such a comfortable victory in game one, the Gophers were caught napping by a quick and effective Wildcats offense in the second frame.

Minnesota replaced Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Paula Gentil with Lisa Reinhart at libero in game two, and New Hampshire’s swift attack, combined with Minnesota’s eight service errors, breathed some life into the Wildcats.

“We really thought we could pull an upset after the second game,” New Hampshire coach Jill Hirschinger said. “They got out of rhythm when they put in a different libero, and with their errors, they couldn’t get anything going.”

But Minnesota quickly quelled any thought of an upset in game three.

The Gophers, with Gentil back on the floor, opened up a 12-4 lead and stretched the margin to 13 en route to a 30-17 win. Minnesota did not commit a service error in the third game, and only posted two in the last two games combined.

And by game four, it was evident the Gophers were not going to self destruct. Five kills from Cassie Busse gave Minnesota a 30-21 fourth-game decision, a 3-1 win, and a date with the Yellow Jackets on Friday night.

“We know anyone we play in the NCAA Tournament is going to be tough,” said Busse, who led all players with 18 kills. “The errors in game two had a domino effect. We just had to make them handle the ball and let our defense take over.”

The Gophers outdug the Wildcats 76-59 and held a 9-6 margin in blocks.

Minnesota meets Georgia Tech at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Hebert said he watched most of the Yellow Jackets’ match with Florida A&M, and came away impressed.

“We’re going to have to block a little better against them,” he said. “(First-team All-ACC selection) Lynnette Moster has great range, and their setter (Kele Eveland) is very accurate. They’re a very good team.”

The Gophers, however, will enter Friday night’s match with a full head of steam, knowing they looked at home Thursday night, even if the Pavilion wasn’t home as usual.

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]