Minnesota’s volleyball team rose to the occasion in tying a school record with its victory Friday night.
In a match of vast importance, playing archrival Wisconsin, the Gophers defeated the Badgers for the fourth straight time – a feat Minnesota had not accomplished since defeating Wisconsin in 10 straight matches from 1983-88.
The 23rd-ranked Gophers (17-7, 10-2 Big Ten) handed the Badgers (16-6, 8-3) a four-game setback – 30-24, 30-25, 28-30, 30-23 – with a home victory.
Minnesota won its fourth straight in a series over which the Badgers historically reigned. No. 20 Wisconsin leads the all-time series with a 33-18-1 record against the Gophers.
However, in this defeat, Erin Martin had an especially memorable night.
“Marty has been our swing player,” coach Mike Hebert said. “She had a horrible match last time versus Wisconsin (a five-game win at Madison three weeks ago), (but) she was fantastic tonight.”
The junior outside hitter tied her career high in kills Friday with 25. Martin also knocked down 25 kills against Iowa last season.
After Friday’s match, Martin gave credit to Minnesota coaches and setter Lindsey Taatjes.
“I guess, you know, we just scouted them really well,” Martin said. “(And) Lindsey put up some juicy balls for me to hit.”
Taatjes, a co-captain, had a match-high 53 assists in aiding Martin’s efforts.
The junior from Prinsburg, Minn., also had 10 digs and eight kills on the night. She came two kills shy of a triple-double, a feat rarely accomplished in volleyball.
The last Gophers player to record the feat was Stephanie Hagen. She had a 21-kill, 11-dig and 13-block effort against Illinois on Nov. 10, 2000.
“Mike was on me to be more offensive this year,” Taatjes said.
The savvy setter is not one to speak aloud of her feats.
Besides Taatjes’ and Martin’s play, Minnesota also received solid efforts from freshman defensive specialist Marci Peniata.
In game four, with the Gophers leading 20-15, a long volley ended when the ball landed untouched in the Badgers’ backcourt, sending the crowd roaring.
Peniata made the point by using what Hebert calls the “peanut push.”
“The whole crowd went up,” Peniata said. “We wanted to get the momentum for our team going into game four.”
The 5-foot-8-inch player from Plymouth, Minn., helped propel her team to win the decisive game (30-23).
Her “peanut push” – a technique involving guiding the ball with two hands – was lobbed over Wisconsin defenders.
Along with Peniata, the Badgers’ defense, as well as other Big Ten teams’ defenses, can start to worry about another Gopher attacker.
Freshman Athena Mallakis started and saw significant playing time for the second straight match.
The California native made her inaugural debut with her eight-block effort last Wednesday in a win over Iowa.
Mallakis only had four kills and four blocks Friday but contributed to her team’s win nonetheless.
With the victory, Minnesota was able to take sole possession of first place.
After being tied with both Illinois and Wisconsin before Friday night, the Gophers now stand alone at the top.
“Match by match we seem to be getting tougher mentally,” Hebert said.
After 10 straight wins and the development of good consistency, Hebert – a 27-year veteran coach in Division I volleyball – has reason to be happy with his team’s mentality.
Mental toughness is an important trait. It’s something that will play a key factor for Hebert’s team as they look to continue their winning ways in Illinois next weekend.