The No. 11 Gophers volleyball team opened its 2011 season with three wins and one loss, defeating No. 4 Texas twice and Oregon once following an opening-night loss to No. 3 USC.
In doing so, Minnesota made an immediate case that 2011 will be anything but a rebuilding season.
The Gophers entered the Diet Coke Classic on Sept. 2-3 as underdogs to the Longhorns, but dismissed that label with a convincing 25-20, 25-20, 25-17 win Friday night at the Sports Pavilion.
The following night, Minnesota backed up its solid play with another straight-sets win, 25-19, 25-21, 25-22.
âÄúIâÄôm almost in tears about this,âÄù interim head coach Laura Bush said of the sweep. âÄúI was just really happy with how we played.âÄù
The Gophers never trailed by more than three points in either match. They also outhit and outdug the Longhorns in both matches.
âÄúI always felt that we were going to [win],âÄù Bush said. âÄúI always felt we would find answers, and the team did that.âÄù
The same can hardly be said for MinnesotaâÄôs opening two matches at the AVCA Showcase at Penn State on Aug. 26-27.
Playing their first match in 15 years under a coach not named Mike Hebert, the Gophers stormed to a two-set lead over then-second-ranked USC before falling, 25-23, 26-24, 13-25, 21-25, 7-15.
While the match offered signs of encouragement for the new-look Gophers, it also brought about old memories: the inability to close out tight matches. In 2010, Minnesota lost its first four five-set matches.
The following night, however, was a different story and served as a statement in its own right. Minnesota rallied to defeat then-unranked Oregon 24-26, 25-15, 22-25, 25-18, 15-10. The Ducks had defeated defending champion and top-ranked Penn State in four sets the previous night.
In the win over Oregon, sophomore outside hitter Ashley Wittman led the Gophers with a career-high 27 kills, hitting .417. Her performance followed the suit of sophomore middle blocker Tori Dixon, who set a career high with 22 kills in the loss to USC.
âÄúIâÄôm pleased, mostly with the win,âÄù Bush said following MinnesotaâÄôs opening weekend split. âÄúBut itâÄôs still going to be [about] how much we can improve, which I think is a lot this season.âÄù
The GophersâÄô proved their coach right against Texas, showing dramatic improvements on both a team and individual level. In addition to playing clean and controlled volleyball, Minnesota enjoyed career nights from junior outside hitter Katherine Harms and senior middle blocker Ariana Filho.
Harms had a career-high 17 kills in FridayâÄôs win, while Filho had 11 kills and hit .733 in SaturdayâÄôs victory. Both players had limited roles in 2010, but will no doubt be asked to raise their level of play on a 2011 squad that lacks depth.
Dixon has been the most consistent of the four standouts, recording at least 10 kills and hitting above .360 in each of the teamâÄôs matches. Dixon credits her success to her teammates, specifically setter Mia Tabberson.
âÄúIt comes with great passing,âÄù Dixon said of her consistency, âÄúand great setters that can give me the ball. ItâÄôs a really good team feeling.âÄù
Tabberson, a junior, played much her first two seasons as the GophersâÄô backup setter. This year, Bush awarded her the starting job from the onset and Tabberson has taken full advantage. Her 12.31 assists per set ranks second in the Big Ten.
Much of TabbersonâÄôs success can be credited to MinnesotaâÄôs improved serve receive, which held the Longhorns to five aces while forcing 12 errors in the two victories.
âÄúItâÄôs hard to hit when you donâÄôt have good passing,âÄù said Filho. âÄúI think Texas stepped up [its] serving [on Saturday], and our passers handled it really well, which was the only way we could get the numbers we got.âÄù
Minnesota will carry its three-match win streak into Cedar Falls, Iowa, for the Northern Iowa Tournament on Sept. 9-10. The Gophers will play St. Louis on Friday, then Kansas and No. 14 Northern Iowa on Saturday.