Much has changed for the Gophers volleyball team since it lost to Penn State and Ohio State a month ago.
Then, Minnesota was 1-3 in the Big Ten with a difficult road schedule on the horizon.
Now, the No. 15 Gophers are 6-6 heading into a stretch of six of eight home matches, and brimming with confidence after last weekend’s straight-set upset at No. 3 Illinois.
What’s happened in the middle is a roller coaster of dramatic wins, unexpected losses and everything in between.
“Consistency hasn’t been our mark this year,” Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush said.
The Gophers (13-8 overall) will attempt to steady the ship this weekend at the Sports Pavilion, where they play the No. 6 Nittany Lions on Friday and the No. 22 Buckeyes on Saturday.
Penn State (17-5, 10-2 Big Ten) has also struggled with its consistency. But the Nittany Lions have rallied of late, winning six consecutive matches, including a four-set victory last Saturday over then-No. 1 Nebraska.
“We knew that they would hit their stride at this time,” Bush said. “They’re starting to play like a unified team in how they move from offense to defense. They’re a lot smoother than what they were earlier in the season, and they’re a lot more formidable in the attack.”
Leading the Nittany Lions’ young-but-balanced attack is freshman setter Micha Hancock, the nation’s top server with 0.86 aces per set.
Hancock had two of Penn State’s five aces in the Nittany Lions’ 25-15, 26-24, 25-15 win over Minnesota in University Park, Penn., on Oct. 1.
The Gophers failed to register an ace in that match, but have improved their serving in recent matches.
They tied a season-high with seven aces in Saturday’s 25-19, 25-20, 25-15 win over Illinois.
Gophers sophomore Tori Dixon, who ranks sixth in the Big Ten with 0.34 aces per set, said the team is in a better frame of mind than it was in the Oct. 1 loss.
“I feel like last time we were in a funk. It just felt weird on the court,” Dixon said.
“It is different playing at home,” she added. Minnesota is 4-1 at the Sports Pavilion in 2011. “Our fan support is great, and they always get really into it. It definitely does take a toll on teams.”
Both Dixon and senior libero Jessica Granquist acknowledged that playing Penn State, the four-time defending national champions, is as much of a mental game as it is physical.
“I really think that any game in the Big Ten could be won or lost based upon the mindset going in, not solely based on performance,” Granquist said. “I think that if you stay consistent and don’t let the lows or highs get you too much, anyone can [win].”
One mental advantage the Gophers have is the outcome of their last match against the Nittany Lions at the Sports Pavilion.
Minnesota rallied to defeat Penn State 14-25, 21-25, 26-24, 25-23, 23-21 on Nov. 27, 2010, in what some fans consider one of the greatest college volleyball matches of all time.
“It is a good comfortable zone to have — a good thing to have in your repertoire,” Granquist said about last year’s win. “But I can’t really hold onto it too tightly.”
Both teams sport different looks than in 2010, most notably at the setter position.
While Hancock has set the Nittany Lions’ offense since their first match in August, Gophers freshman Kellie McNeil has had to wait her turn.
McNeil replaced junior Mia Tabberson as Minnesota’s starting setter last weekend when the team split road matches with Northwestern and Illinois.
Bush hasn’t named McNeil the starter against Penn State, but she did laud the freshman for her consistency during a road weekend that was largely inconsistent.
“At Northwestern, Kellie wasn’t a distractor in contributing to the loss. I don’t think she was a distractor in contributing to the win at Illinois,” Bush said. “She has been able to provide us not only with some consistent setting, but also blocking, defense and serving.
“That’s an important role for setters to take on.”
McNeil’s play impressed Dixon as well, who struggled against Northwestern but played one of her best matches of the season against Illinois.
“She did bring a lot of things to us,” Dixon said. “Her block was huge — she can jump like no other person I’ve seen before. I think that will help us this weekend, but whatever the coaches decide to do, it’s all for the best.”
In previous weekends, Bush has stuck by one setter for both matches. She has not said if Friday’s match will affect the decision on who to start against Ohio State.
The Buckeyes (16-9, 6-6 Big Ten) defeated the Gophers 25-23, 25-20, 28-26 in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 30.
Ohio State had six service aces in that match, and although it has cooled down since then, it remains one of the most aggressive serving teams in the Big Ten.
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