Heading to Hawaii

by Brian Stensaas

The difference in match-time between Friday night’s thwarting of Robert Morris College by Minnesota and the gritty effort needed to beat Arizona State 3-1 the next night was exactly one hour.
A flight to Honolulu? Just a bit longer.
The Minnesota volleyball team, seeded second in the west region of the NCAA tournament, clinched its second consecutive trip to the sweet 16 this weekend in front of a home crowd at the Sports Pavilion. Top-seeded Hawaii also won its first and second round matches at home in Honolulu, earning the right to host the regional finals.
After whipping the Colonials 15-1, 15-6, 15-2 Minnesota defeated the Sun Devils 15-12, 10-15, 15-7, 15-6 to advance.
While Friday night was a virtual cake walk for the Gophers — Minnesota scored its first seven points in three minutes and needed just 12 to complete the first game en route to the match win in under an hour — Saturday was the opposite side of the coin. And it was obvious which face was shown on the up-side.
Arizona State’s Amanda Burbridge unleashed her jump serve on the Gophers, a move she did not utilize the night before against Duke.
“Arizona State gave us a taste of our own medicine by throwing Burbridge at us,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “I haven’t seen any jump server create such havoc on our side all season long.”
Burbridge came alive in the second game, recording four straight service aces and making Minnesota’s passing game look like Swiss cheese. She finished with seven aces for the match and chipped in 19 kills, both tops on the team.
Hebert said he thought Arizona was fatigued towards the end of the match, but Sun Devils coach Patti Snyder-Park disagreed.
“I think we had a lot of energy but we just didn’t pass well enough to use it,” she said.
Despite big plays, Burbridge was severely upstaged by Minnesota’s deep lineup — once again led by Nicole Branagh. Playing her final home match in a Minnesota uniform, Branagh had 31 kills, tying her own school record for an NCAA tournament match.
Once Minnesota got back on track after its game two funk, the back row defense and middle attack returned to the court after a brief regular season hiatus.
The Gophers were able to use freshman walk-on defensive specialist Kelli Wicks in both matches after she had been out with an injury for over a month. Paired with Lisa Axel in the back row, the two kept Minnesota in long rallies on numerous occasions.
“Whenever Kelli steps out on to the floor it seems to ignite our team,” Hebert said. “She is so determined and gifted at what she does. I thought she was a factor in the match.”
Wicks set a career high against Arizona State with 11 digs, good for the team lead along with Yvonne VanOort.
Charnette Fair paced the middle, particularly against the Sun Devils.
She hit .800 Friday — setting a Gophers NCAA tournament record — and hit .588 as an encore Saturday. Her lone hitting error against the Sun Devils was a return which sailed out of bounds on the first volley of the match.
Fair also led a 16-7 Minnesota advantage in total team blocks, gaining two solo blocks and eight block assists.
The win was number 30 on the season for Minnesota, also a school record. About the same number of parents and fans showed up Saturday night donning Hawaiian leis in hopes of a trip to the Islands.
Team captain and Honolulu native Lindsey Berg dodged questions left and right all last week about the possibility of returning home for the holidays a couple of weeks early.
After defeating the Sun Devils, Berg was asked the first thing she would do back home on the island.
“I’ll probably go out and see some of my friends,” Berg said.
After receiving a whisper in her ear from Hebert as she was speaking — a little off-court coaching if you will — Berg grinned and replied, “win.”
Minnesota is tentatively scheduled to play UC Santa Barbara (25-7) in Honolulu on Thursday night at 9 p.m. CST.

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