Spikers sweep both Michigan schools

by Ben Goessling

For months, the date stood out on the calendar like a lighthouse in the dark.

Sept. 27. Michigan State. Big Ten opener.

Minnesota’s volleyball team, swept twice by the Spartans a year ago, spent the entire off-season waiting to erase last year’s embarrassment and stand up to the team that pushed them around.

But after a stirring 3-0 victory over No. 21 Michigan State on Friday night, Minnesota found itself with its hands full against Michigan on Saturday, outlasting the Wolverines 30-26, 30-23, 31-29.

“We invested a lot of emotion (against Michigan State),” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. “There are seven or eight matches during the year you really get up for, but you can’t do it every night.”

No. 8 Minnesota kicked off the conference season in grand style Friday night, coming back from an 18-10 deficit in game three to complete a whitewash of the Spartans.

From the start of the first game Friday night, it was clear Minnesota (15-2, 2-0 Big Ten) aimed to set a tone for the conference season. The Gophers used Erin Martin and Cassie Busse’s big serves to build a 16-10 lead in game one, and never looked back in a 30-23 victory.

After blowing a four-point lead in game two and enduring two close calls that brought Hebert off the bench arguing, a frustrated Martin hammered an ace to make it 29-26, and the Gophers held on for a 30-27 victory.

But it was the third game where Minnesota made its mark.

Down by eight points and seemingly headed toward a fourth game, the Gophers stormed back, ending the match on a 14-4 run and sending all 1,923 fans in the Sports Pavilion, even the normally reserved Hebert, into a state if bedlam.

“I’ve seen them come back before, so I knew we had a chance,” Hebert said. “This group is a lot of fun to coach.”

The coach gambled on outside hitter Trisha Bratford with the Gophers losing 24-18. Sitting on the bench the entire match, Bratford replaced a tiring Erin Lorenzen and responded with four kills and two huge blocks to spearhead the comeback.

“I was pretty cold, but I knew we had to do something,” Bradford said. “We let them take over last year, and we couldn’t let that happen again.”

The match against Michigan, however, was a different story.

Matched up against a team whose offensive style gave it fits, Minnesota let Michigan hang around in every game before relying on opposite hitter Busse to finish the Wolverines off.

Busse hit .448 for the match, compared to just a .167 attack percentage for the rest of her teammates.

She was the only player in the match to post double-figure kills (16), and seemed to take over at the end of every game.

“We played the big points better than Michigan did and that was usually because Cassie had her way with their block,” Hebert said.

Busse, who received one-on-one coverage for most of the night, made the most of the mismatch.

“I had all my shots open, and I was able to do pretty much whatever I wanted,” Busse said. “We matched up better with Michigan State but it was fun for me to have all my options against Michigan.”

The Gophers head to the Wisconsin Fieldhouse to play the defending Big Ten champion Badgers – a team Minnesota hasn’t beaten in three years – Friday night.

And while Minnesota didn’t play two flawless matches this weekend, Martin is happy with the team’s position heading to Wisconsin.

“Our goal is to go at least 2-2 during these first two weekends, so we’ve already got that at the very least,” Martin said. “Sometimes you have to fake it until you make it.”