Gophers must rally to keep postseason hopes alive

Mark Heise

For the Minnesota volleyball team, snapping a seven-match losing streak earned one night of celebration, but then it was back to work.

The Gophers (13-10 overall, 6-7 Big Ten) were back in the gym Thursday afternoon, putting Wednesday’s win over Iowa behind them in an effort to prepare for the match Friday night at Michigan, beginning at 6 p.m.

But there was something different after the Iowa win; something that hadn’t been present in quite a while: swagger.

“One win was all we needed to fix all the problems,” senior middle blocker Jessy Jones said. “And we got it. So you can just expect greatness from here on out. We’re back to being Minnesota volleyball. The belief is back, and we’re fine.”

Freshman outside hitter Brook Dieter declared Wednesday’s win to be a new start, and as the Gophers are in need of winning five of the seven remaining matches to have playoff hopes, Wednesday’s new start was a step in the right direction.

But to beat Michigan on the road might require Minnesota to take another step up as the Wolverines (17-7, 5-7) are a much stronger team than Iowa was.

Michigan was ranked in the top 25 through the first nine weeks of the season, just like the Gophers, but dropped out this week after dropping three consecutive matches.

Despite this, the Wolverines are still an offensive threat, led by junior middle blocker Beth Karpiak’s 3.16 kills per game and .357 hit percentage.

But junior outside hitter Katie Vatterrodt said Minnesota was focused and ready for the match.

“Michigan’s going to be a tough task, but I think we’re ready. Mentally we’re back in the game, and we’ve got our confidence back – we’re ready to go.”

Last time out against Michigan, the Gophers used 18 blocks and a stellar defensive performance to sweep the Wolverines at the Sports Pavilion.

Holding Michigan to a hitting percentage below .100 would be tough to repeat on the road, but sophomore libero Christine Tan and the rest of the Gophers back court are coming off of a strong performance against Iowa, which Tan said could translate into strong play at Michigan.

“It boosts the confidence to have a game like that,” she said. “We know back court defense and blocking will have a big impact on the game, and if we can play the same kind of defense we did against Iowa, we’re going to do well against Michigan.”

With a bottleneck of eight teams within a game of third place in the Big Ten, the outcome of both Minnesota and Michigan’s conference seasons are up for grabs.

A win for either team could mean returning to the top half of the standings. But after losing at Michigan last year, Tan said the Gophers have an added motive to win.

“We have to honor Michigan and respect their talent, but right now they think we’re still vulnerable,” she said. “I think that will help us. It’s going to be a tough match, but losing to them last year on our home court is nothing but another incentive to beat them.”