Minnesota faces first ranked test in national powerhouse Texas

The Gophers defeated Texas 3-0 twice last season at home, but they enter Thursday and Friday’s matches as underdogs.

Megan Ryan

Just three years ago, the Gophers women’s volleyball made its third NCAA Final Four appearance — only to see their title hopes end at the hands of national powerhouse Texas.

No. 14 Minnesota will travel to Austin to play the No. 4 Longhorns on Thursday and Friday. But the history between the two sides won’t be a factor for the Gophers, head coach Hugh McCutcheon said.

“At this stage of the season, it’s so much about our side of the net,” McCutcheon said. “We’re eager to play someone as strong as Texas because it’ll expose some weaknesses, and we’ll figure out some things we need to do better, and that can only help us at this stage.”

Minnesota actually holds the advantage in the overall record between the two teams, three matches to two. Plus, the Gophers have the momentum.

Minnesota beat Texas 3-0 twice last year at the Sports Pavilion, thoroughly dominating the higher-ranked Longhorns. In the 2009 Final Four, the Longhorns swept the Gophers.

The two teams also met in a 2010 spring game, which Minnesota won 3-1.

Senior setter Mia Tabberson has experienced each of the last four meetings with Texas.

“It’s just a team that you get really excited about. They’re highly ranked,” Tabberson said. “It’s kind of like these very tall giants versus a team that’s pretty good height. We’re definitely going for that more blue-collar style of play — just grind it out and get through the match and hopefully pull out two more victories.”

Texas has a 5-1 record so far this year, with the only loss coming to No. 2 Penn State. Minnesota is 5-0 and has only dropped one set. The difference is Texas has played three ranked teams, while Minnesota has played none.

Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said her team is ready for the challenge of a ranked team, but some nerves will still come into play.

“I think it’s just a lot of mixed emotions. We’re excited to finally play someone ranked and … nationally recognized,” Dixon said. “There’s going to be a few jitters. They usually pack the house … so we’re going to be a little nervous.”

Freshman libero Lindsey Lawmaster has the responsibility of defending Texas’ powerful attack.

Outside hitter Bailey Webster was 2011 AVCA First Team All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year. Fellow outside hitter Haley Eckerman was the 2011 AVCA/Volleyball Magazine National Freshman of the Year and was named to the First Team All-Big 12.

“I’m trying to man my own self and my defense down and trying to lead the back row as well,” Lawmaster said. “I was very nervous previously. In all my games I was always a little jittery. But I think now I’m the most excited I’ve been all season.”

Texas has a history of strong offenses, including 2009 Final Four competitor and Olympic silver medalist Destinee Hooker, who played under McCutcheon.

But McCutcheon said that while he recognizes and respects Texas’ history of success, he isn’t worrying too much about his team’s first test of the season.

“We’re not too caught up in any particular rivalry at this stage. There’s plenty of time for all of that to play out,” McCutcheon said. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the net.”

After the Thursday and Friday matches against Texas, the Gophers will make a quick turnaround to face North Dakota State at the Sports Pavilion on Monday.