Gophers win third tourney in a row, verify No. 1 rank

Only unranked Rice gave Minnesota a test at the UNC Volleyball Classic in Chapel Hill.

Kent Erdahl

The No. 1 ranked Minnesota volleyball team knew it would be tested over the weekend. It just wasn’t supposed to come so early.

The Gophers traveled to North Carolina on Thursday for the UNC Volleyball Classic, and their schedule presented an interesting challenge. The team was to face unranked Rice on Friday afternoon, followed by No. 20 Loyola Marymount at 9 a.m. Saturday and host North Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Minnesota’s Saturday schedule was supposed to be the first big test of its first weekend as the top-ranked team. When the team stepped onto the court for its match against Rice on Friday, however, they got a scare that might have been exactly what they needed.

The Gophers were forced to battle back from a two-games-to-one deficit against the Owls, pulling out a win in the fifth game.

But when Minnesota showed up for its matches on Saturday – the No. 1 team in the nation finally flexed its muscles.

The Gophers went on to win the tournament with three-game sweeps in their final two matches.

“Apparently we came out not ready to play, and it took us a long, long time to get there,”

Gophers libero Paula Gentil said. “But that’s what a good team does. We pulled out a win when we needed to.”

Although they eventually won Friday’s match, the Gophers took their time in doing so. Minnesota trailed Rice 28-24 in a game that could have ended the match, but the team turned the deficit into a two-point win in the next six volleys.

The match was similar to the Gophers’ battles the weekend before, when they won the Diet Coke Classic in a total of 14 games. Nobody seemed to expect such a challenge against Rice.

Coach Mike Hebert said the Owls relied on a great service game, but he also said Minnesota might have been stuck in the past.

“We were fortunate to win that match against Rice,” Herbert said. “I felt like maybe we still had a hangover from the previous weekend, but by Saturday we were back in full stride.”

Regardless of the explanation, the close match sparked the team, and the Gophers cruised through the competition Saturday.

A big reason for the team’s success was tournament most valuable player Erin Martin. In the game against No. 20 Loyola Marymount, Martin collected 26 kills in only three games – a new school record for three-game rally scoring matches.

Martin continued her dominance on Saturday evening, recording 22 kills and finishing with a 0.500 hitting percentage for the tournament.

“She was probably hitting the ball as well as she ever has at Minnesota,” Hebert said of Martin. “She showed that she was the most offensively dominant player there this weekend.”

The MVP honors marked the third straight week that Martin claimed that title at a tournament. Gentil and Lindsey Taatjes were also named to the all-tournament team.

“Our team feels really good. We just came out and took care of business,” Martin said.

Minnesota will look to continue taking care of business tonight, when they finish off a stretch of four games in four days. The Gophers will face Cincinnati at 7 pm at the Sports Pavilion.

Regardless of the outcome, Martin said the team is happy with its play over the weekend, considering it was its first time defending a No. 1 ranking.

“We didn’t really focus on it at all as a team,” Martin said. “But when the rankings come out this week, I think it will be important to show the rest of the teams that we’re not dropping.”