Volleyball team falters in last game, settles for second in Big Ten

Brian Stensaas

COLUMBUS, Ohio — To say the seventh-ranked Minnesota volleyball team had its first Big Ten title in program history in sight would be a severe understatement.
So would saying the Gophers could smell it, taste it, feel it, had it in reach or any other analogy you could come up with.
In fact the title was so close Saturday night at St. John Arena, Minnesota served for the match — and the Big Ten title to boot — in the fifth game but missed the opportunity. It was just one of many in its 12-15, 14-16, 15-8, 15-13, 18-16 heartbreaking, marathon loss to No. 17 Ohio State.
“It was a terrific match,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “Both teams played as hard as they could. I don’t fault our players in any fashion.”
Wisconsin (27-3, 18-2 Big Ten), meanwhile, defeated Michigan State 3-0 in East Lansing Saturday night to claim its first outright title since 1990.
Minnesota (28-3, 17-3) finished as Big Ten runners-up for the second consecutive season and heads into the NCAA tournament wondering — what if?
“This is something that happens and you deal with in sports,” Minnesota setter Lindsey Berg said. “I’m confident we’ll shake it off, but it’s going to take time. We don’t want to think about it or talk about it too much, but we have to.”
The Gophers headed to Columbus knowing they might shed a few tears after the match with the Buckeyes. But they didn’t anticipate them being shed in disappointment.
After erasing deficits and winning the first two games of the match, the first conference title in program history seemed to be a lock for Minnesota. But a powerful Ohio State offensive attack wore down the Gophers and forced a decisive game five.
“The match turned on little touches and non-touches and balls going a foot in or a foot out,” Hebert said. “It was a matter of who was going to make the last error.”
After battling back from down 5-1, the fifth game went on to be tied 10 times. Giving the Gophers hope, Yvonne VanOort stuffed a block to give Minnesota a 16-15 lead and the serve for match point.
But Ohio State’s Suzie Stiling smacked a kill to once again tie the match and a Buckeye block set up another match point, this time for Ohio State.
Attacking from the left side, VanOort leaped to attempt a kill over Ohio State’s Katie Virtue following the volley, but knicked the net antenna giving the Buckeyes the upset win and nixing Minnesota’s Big Ten title dreams.
VanOort buried her head in her hands following the team handshake at center court and sat alone on the team bus shortly after the match, only to be reassured by Hebert she took the correct shot.
“(VanOort) had the right match-up and Berg gave her a great set,” he said. “I wanted to find Yvonne right away to let her know that she can’t feel bad. Her body language on that swing and the effort she gave to get up there was correct. She hit the antenna by an eighth of an inch and hit the heck out of it.”
Nicole Branagh led the team with 23 kills but hit just .098 for the match. Stephanie Hagen chipped in with 21 kills while Branagh and Berg each notched 20 digs, leading the defense. Berg had three service aces in the match, two earned Minnesota its first point and final point of the opening game.
Said Branagh as she stared into the rafters of St. John Arena,”It’s hard to move on but you have to. It is such a heartbreak, you know, it was right at the tip of our fingers.”
Again, a severe understatement.

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]