Minnesota’s road to the Final Four makes a stop in Florida

Mark Heise

With two NCAA Tournament wins under its belt, the Minnesota volleyball team needs just a pair of wins this weekend to earn a spot in the Final Four for the third time in four seasons.

The eighth-seeded Gophers travel to the Gainesville, Fla. Regional to take on ninth-seeded Florida tonight at 6 p.m. It will be the fourth time these two schools have met, with Minnesota leading the series 2-1.

Freshman defensive specialist and Florida native Christine Tan said she was looking forward to playing in her home state.

“We’re really excited to get down there and play,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to head home and play in front of my family and friends, and it’s good to be able to play somewhere that I’m already familiar with.”

Familiarity shouldn’t be a problem for the Gophers (25-7 overall), who played at Florida in a spring session, but one problem that could arise is the home-court advantage handed to Florida as the Gators, along with Texas, are the only teams to host the first four rounds of play.

Throughout the season, coach Mike Hebert stressed the importance of home-court advantage, making clear the dangers of playing on the road. But, when asked about playing in Gainesville against Florida, his season-long philosophy changed.

“Playing in the Big Ten, we have a lot of experience going into some away gyms and playing some very tough matches against some top-tier teams,” he said. “So I don’t think that playing on their home-court is going to be as distracting for us.”

Distracting or not, Minnesota will be in for a challenge, facing a team ranked third nationally in hitting percentage at .294 and tied for eighth in blocks, averaging 3.42 per game.

The Gators (30-2) are led by junior outside hitter Amber McCray, who averages 3.8 kills per game, and sophomore middle blocker Kelsey Bowers, who averages 1.64 blocks per game.

Regardless of those numbers, Hebert considered Florida’s most dangerous weapon to be junior setter Angie McGinnis.

“They have one of the best setters in the country in McGinnis,” he said. “Not only is she accurate with the ball, she’s also a winner. She leads that team, and I think they’ll follow her wherever she decides to take them.”

Despite such tough competition, there was an air of confidence surrounding the Gophers during their midweek practice.

Since both teams play a similar style of power-volleyball, Tan said her team was excited about the matchup.

“We’re heading in with a lot of confidence,” she said. “We think that we match up well against Florida, and I think we’ve got a good chance to pull it out.”

In addition, Minnesota has built a reputation of stepping up to meet challenges this season, playing some of its best volleyball against some of its toughest competition.

Junior middle blocker Jessy Jones has been one of the many players to come through for the Gophers in big-game situations and said the upped level of play in big games comes partly from a desire to send the seniors out on a good note.

“When I see (senior outside hitter) Kelly Bowman giving her all, I start to think about what I’m contributing,” she said. “The seniors are giving everything they’ve got and we want to see them go out with a bang.”

More honors

Hebert was named the Mideast Region Coach of the Year for the fourth time in his career Wednesday, while senior libero Malama Peniata, senior middle blocker Meredith Nelson and senior outside hitter Kelly Bowman also received honors.

Peniata and Nelson both received First-Team All-Region honors for the first time in their collegiate careers.

Bowman received Honorable-Mention honors, making it the second time in her career that she has been awarded regional honors.