Pair of wins would put Gophers on track for title

Mark Heise

This weekend could easily turn into the biggest of the year for the Minnesota volleyball team.

Needing a pair of wins to keep their hopes of a conference title alive, the 12th-ranked Gophers face the two best offenses in the Big Ten as they battle Ohio State tonight at 7 and Penn State on 7 p.m. Saturday. Both games will be played at the Sports Pavilion.

Minnesota (15-5 overall, 9-1 Big Ten) finished the first half of the conference season with just one loss and trails only No. 2 Penn State (21-0, 10-0) for the lead in the conference.

Senior middle blocker Meredith Nelson stressed the importance of the weekend but in the end said her team was ready.

“We feel like we’re prepared, and we know what we need to do to beat some quality teams,” she said. “We are used to the competition now, and I think we’re ready to play.”

Ohio State (15-5, 5-5) has fallen to the 24th spot in the rankings and is currently in fifth place in the conference. The Gophers started the Buckeyes’ downward spiral after overpowering them in four games in Columbus on Oct. 8.

That defeat was the first of three straight losses for the Buckeyes as they dropped matches to Northwestern and Illinois following the Minnesota match.

But Ohio State turned things around last week, topping both Michigan and Michigan State, and appeared to return to its previous form.

Hitting .282 on the season, the Buckeyes have used their quick offensive style to their advantage, turning many matches into track races instead of defensive struggles.

Senior outside hitter Kelly Bowman has seen plenty of time against Ohio State and seemed to know its offense inside and out.

“Ohio State’s a very offensive team,” she said. “We really have to shut down their setter and keep them away from the middle ifwe want to be successful.”

As offensive-minded as the Buckeyes are, they just don’t compare to Penn State. The Nittany Lions enter the weekend hitting a conference-best .319 and boast the best defense in the Big Ten as well, holding opponents to a .130 hit percentage. The Gophers are currently second best at .150.

On offense, outside hitters Nicole Fawcett and Megan Hodge average 4.4 and 4.9 kills per game, respectively. The Nittany Lions have had one of those two lead the team in kills in 19 of 21 matches this season. That double threat is something that Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said he is concerned with.

“We have to either significantly slow down their two outside hitters or they need to have a mistake-filled night,” he said. “If those two are on, there really isn’t much anybody can do about it.”

Penn State comes in with a 41-match win streak in the conference and has won 24 of its last 26 matches in three-game sweeps.

Despite those impressive numbers and a four-game loss the Gophers suffered at the hands of the Nittany Lions earlier in the season, junior middle blocker Jessy Jones said Minnesota has advantages going into this match.

“The big difference between when we played them three weeks ago and now is that they had an intimidation factor that they don’t have now,” she said. “We’re at our home and we have that extra confidence. We’re ready to play them. We’re excited.”