Gophers road split good enough to earn playoff berth

Minnesota will play Sacramento State to open the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Mark Heise

It wasn’t a great weekend for the Minnesota volleyball team, but it should be enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

The Gophers (18-12 overall, 11-9 Big Ten) struggled to find their rhythm on the road, laboring through a five-game win over Illinois on Friday, 26-30, 26-30, 30-23, 30-17, 15-12, before getting swept in ugly fashion Saturday at ninth-ranked Wisconsin, 19-30, 17-30, 16-30.

But despite breaking a five-match winning streak, coach Mike Hebert said he thought his team was playoff bound.

“I think our record is good enough to get us in,” he said. “There should be five or six Big Ten teams in this year, and I think we’ll be one of them.”

It didn’t look good for the Gophers early Friday night, however. After dropping two quick games by identical scores of 26-30 to Illinois, it appeared the match against the Illini would go the same way the teams’ earlier meeting had.

But instead of losing decisively, Minnesota improved its play in the final three games of the match, shoring up its blocking scheme to hold off the Illini.

“It was definitely a tough spot, but no one was freaking out,” senior middle blocker Jessy Jones said. “We saw the things that we needed to fix, fixed them, and it was game over.”

After allowing Illinois freshman outside hitter Laura DeBruler to own the first two games with the majority of her match-high 23 kills, the Gophers continuously switched up their double-block to try to confuse the young hitter.

The Gophers returned to their strong blocking form, led by Jones’ ten blocks, to finish the night with 21 as a team. Jones also contributed 13 kills on the night.

Minnesota won the third and fourth games 30-23 and 30-17, and freshman outside hitter Brook Dieter led the team through the fifth game with five kills as the Gophers won 15-12.

After fighting through an important road win, Minnesota seemed poised for an upset bid over Wisconsin. But the Badgers took any thought of that away from the start.

Wisconsin’s serving game was especially tough on Minnesota, as the Badgers served from well off the baseline to record six aces and disrupt the Gophers offense all night long.

“Wisconsin served the ball about as well as you can serve it,” Hebert said. “We weren’t equipped to smooth out our passing game to be in system enough to run any offense, and they kept us off balance all night.”

Wisconsin (25-4, 17-3) took advantage of an aggressive serve to put together an 11-0 run early in game one, and quickly put the game away, 19-30. Badgers’ senior outside hitter Taylor Reineke recorded five kills on just seven swings to lead Wisconsin, while Minnesota junior outside hitter Rachelle Hagerty entered late in the first game and led the Gophers with four kills.

Minnesota quickly fell behind 1-8 in the second game as well, as the Gophers suffered a pair of hitting errors and two ball-handling errors, all thanks in part to the Badgers’ tough serving.

“I think a lot of it came down to our passing,” Dieter said. “Like Coach said, they were tough serves, something we haven’t seen before and it was difficult to come out and pass against that.”

Minnesota recorded just seven kills in the second game, while Wisconsin collected 18 on its way to another quick 16-30 win.

The final game was more of the same, as the Gophers never led at any point past the seven-point mark. Minnesota’s blocking was impressive as usual, but Wisconsin found ways around that, beating the Gophers with quick sets that were finished before the block could arrive.

“They were just really smart with that,” Jones said. “When we were there, they tipped right over the block, and when we weren’t, they hit it. They played well and I’m going to give them credit.”