Loss to Lions holds positives for U

Sarah Mitchell

On most weekends, an upset of the No. 14 team in the nation would be a highlight for the Gophers women’s volleyball team.
But this weekend, a majority of the team’s emotion seemed to center its Friday loss to No. 1 Penn State — not the 3-1 victory over Ohio State.
The young Gophers weren’t disappointed by their 3-0 loss to undefeated Penn State, however. In fact, Minnesota was pleased by its competitiveness against the nation’s top volleyball team, which produced a positive outlook for the Big Ten season ahead.
Kills from sophomore outside hitters Nicole Branagh and Sonja Posthuma placed the Gophers in the realm of an upset early in game one, when Minnesota took a 6-0 lead.
But the Gophers’ inexperience took over, as their game plan crumbled under the pressure of an unlikely lead. Penn State called a time-out, effectively halting Minnesota’ momentum.
“They were still asking the question, `Is Minnesota for real or what?'” Gophers coach Michael Hebert said of Penn State’s mentality facing a 6-0 deficit.
Hebert said after the game that Penn State was questioning whether the Gophers were for real when coach Russ Rose talked to his players on the sideline.
He was right. On the Lions bench, Rose calmly discussed team strategy, but even the veteran coach said he was doubting a Penn State victory.
“When we were losing 6-0, I’m thinking I hope we can score a point,” Rose said.
Minnesota obliged. Plagued by hitting errors the rest of the game, Penn State outscored the Gophers 15-1, en route to a 15-7 game one victory.
In taking thirteen consecutive points from Minnesota in that game, Penn State did plenty to justify its No. 1 ranking. The Lions fought back on the road, playing in the gym of a team that belongs to the nation’s most competitive volleyball conference.
“That was where I began to think, `Well maybe we don’t have the consistency to battle Penn State in the point column,'” Hebert said of the game one defeat.
Games two and three were lost in similar fashion, by scores of 15-7 and 15-8, respectively.
Despite the 34 hitting errors committed by the Gophers, they still faired well on the stat sheet compared to Penn State.
“The competitiveness of the match was not reflected by the lopsidedness of the score in my opinion,” Hebert said. “Penn State is a very difficult team to score against. Looking at the stat sheet I’m seeing some things that actually make me pretty happy.”
Minnesota’s serving game pleased Hebert the most. Penn State recorded only one service ace against the Gophers, while Minnesota racked up three aces of its own, including two from freshman outside hitter Yvonne Wichert.
Most importantly, a small Gophers victory exists inside of each game defeat. Penn State opponents have only been scoring an average of four points a game against the Lions’ defense.
The most recent victim of the Penn State defense was No. 14 Ohio State (7-4 overall, 0-2 in the Big Ten), a team that was drilled by the Lions last week by scores of 15-1, 15-3 and 15-3. The young Gopher team nearly doubled this average in all three games.
“They didn’t bring us to our knees the way they do with a lot of teams,” Hebert said.
Rose agreed, saying the Gophers played like an older team. The Penn State coach said Minnesota needs to learn how to bounce back from mistakes before it can consistently defeat the top teams.
“Old teams just get over the lull quicker,” Rose said.
While the outcome was a 3-0 Penn State victory, Minnesota played at Penn State’s level at times, giving fans glimpses of a Gopher team that could pose a national threat for seasons to come.
“I was very pleased with the effort level and I think it provides us something substantial to build on,” Hebert said. “I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”