With the pre-season officially over, the No. 14 Gophers can’t help but look ahead at the path that might lead them back to the Final Four.
It isn’t going to be easy, but no one knows that better than the team itself.
“[The older players] told me that the road is going to be hard,” freshman Tori Dixon said. “…We need to keep improving and keep on top of our game.”
With a record of 10-2, The Gophers open up the Big Ten conference this weekend on the road against Michigan State and No. 22 Michigan—one of the five teams they lost to in the 2009 season.
“We need to play with a great deal of confidence because the conference is, particularly at the top half, very strong this year,” head coach Mike Hebert said. “…The probability is that even the last place team in the conference could win a match against anybody.”
The Gophers went 15-5 in the Big Ten last year—losing two of those matches to Penn State—and if the current rankings are any indicator, it looks to be a pretty tough season ahead.
There are currently three other Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25 besides Minnesota—No. 2 Penn State, No. 9 Illinois, and No. 22 Michigan—while Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Purdue also received votes.
With 20 conference matches to get through, the Gophers need at least a .500 record in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. They lost to Texas in the semifinals of the Final Four last year and while the team would love to make a return trip, junior Ariana Filho said the team is taking this season one game at a time.
“Each year is a new year, each team is a new team,” Filho said. “We can’t come in with expectations that we are going to go back because there are no guarantees and we don’t know what our conference play will look like.”
Hebert said the key to being successful in the strong Big Ten conference play is cutting down mistakes, something the Gophers struggled with in their loss to San Diego.
“Our team made some mistakes that are characteristic of young players,” he said. “…We hit a ball out of bounds. We served a ball into the net. We had a net violation in one of our attempts to block. Little things like that that a more veteran team probably wouldn’t have done. Those are the little things we’ve got to clean up.”
Of the obstacles for the Gophers, two stand out: An inexperienced team featuring three freshmen and five sophomores on the 14-person roster, and the recent loss of their star outside hitter and only remaining senior, Lauren Gibbemeyer.
“Each player, whether we are older or not, has to step up a little bit,” Filho said. “[The juniors] are kind of being forced to play the senior role now and I think it’s good for us.”
Gibbemeyer, who injured her wrist on Sept. 8, is being treated by the University’s sports medicine department but it will be another week or two before her status is officially known.
“It’s some big shoes to fill,” Dixon, an outside hitter, said. “It’s hard because you’re so young but it’s something that is needed for the team. If I just play my game and not let the nerves get to me, we should all be fine.”
Opening up conference play without Gibbemeyer in the line-up, Hebert stressed that the younger players need to adjust quickly to playing at the college level.
“These are kids that have never played in front of huge crowds and have never played in any of these Big Ten venues,” he said. “They are going to have to get seasoned real fast. The ability for them to acclimate to this level of play and the pressure of the Big Ten is really going to be important.”
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