Two-time All-American volleyball star Lauren Gibbemeyer graduated from Minnesota after a 2010 season that featured one of the greatest individual performances in Gophers’ history — a 25-kill, eight-block effort in a dramatic comeback win at home against Penn State.
Facing the No. 6 Nittany Lions at home in 2011, the Gophers nearly rallied to win again — but fell in five sets, and split their weekend series against Penn State and Ohio State.
Whether any returning Gopher could replace Gibbemeyer’s production was one of the burning questions heading into the 2011 season.
In one weekend, Ashley Wittman nearly did.
The sophomore outside hitter had 52 kills and 31 digs over the weekend, including a career-high 31 kills in Friday’s 3-2 loss to the Nittany Lions at the Sports Pavilion.
Her 31 kills were also the most any Big Ten player has recorded in a match this season.
“I thought she took a huge step as the left-side attacker we recruited her to be,” Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush said of Wittman’s performance Friday.
“She really held her own out there in passing, in blocking and obviously in attacking, with everyone in the world knowing that the ball was going to Ashley Wittman, as well as going behind the service line with confidence and putting a lot of pressure on Penn State.”
Wittman remained a focus of No. 22 Ohio State’s game plan Saturday, but held her ground in the Gophers’ 3-1 win. She had a team-high of 21 kills and added 12 digs and two service aces.
She also received 33 serves without committing an error.
“In practice, that’s what we do — we pass, we pass, we pass,” Wittman said. “It’s frustrating at times, but it only makes us better, which has been showing up in the last couple matches.”
The Gophers (14-9, 7-7 Big Ten) passed much better in the Ohio State match, which they won 25-18, 25-19, 22-25, 25-23. Minnesota limited the tough-serving Buckeyes (7-7 Big Ten) to two service aces.
The Gophers’ blocking also came alive one night after it failed to record a single block against Penn State.
The team had nine blocks total against the Buckeyes, and sophomore Tori Dixon had five of Minnesota’s 16 block assists.
“I think we just focused on it,” Dixon said of the blocking. “We had a lot of good calls from the coaches. We followed through with the game plan.”
Dixon also had 14 kills Saturday and 25 on the weekend — a testament to the improved setting of freshman Kellie McNeil.
McNeil struggled in her first start last weekend to set the Gophers’ two middle blockers — Dixon and senior Ariana Filho.
Dixon and Filho had just 32 swings in Minnesota’s loss at Northwestern and win at Illinois, and totaled 17 kills.
This weekend, McNeil set them a combined 83 times, resulting in 37 kills.
“Kellie’s still learning the setting role and her offensive options,” Bush said. “She’s getting better at it, and I thought that was the difference between the third set and the fourth set [Saturday] — she distributed the ball better.”
Friday’s match versus No. 6 Penn State featured a battle between two freshman setters — McNeil and Big Ten ace leader Micha Hancock.
The two set their offenses evenly throughout the match — McNeil had 61 assists, Hancock 58 — but Hancock’s serve, combined with the play of the Nittany Lions’ tall front row, proved to be too much for the Gophers.
Minnesota lost the first two sets 27-25 and 25-17 but won the third and fourth sets by scores of 25-23.
Wittman had 12 kills in the fourth set, which the Gophers won after trailing 11-6.
In the fifth set, Minnesota fell behind 8-5, and then scored four consecutive points to take a 9-8 lead. All signs pointed to the Gophers completing the same comeback they had a year ago — the Gophers trailed two sets to none at home to Penn State on Nov. 27, 2010, but came back and won the fifth set 23-21.
This time, though, the Gophers didn’t have Gibbemeyer.
They had Wittman, but the outside hitter was stuck in the back row for 17 of the last 19 points.
With the Gophers trailing 13-12, senior Hailey Cowles served long, and then Hancock, who had three aces in the match, delivered a hard jump serve that the Gophers passed over the net for an easy Penn State kill.
Wittman’s last kill came with the Gophers leading 4-3 in the fifth set.
Penn State (11-3 Big Ten) out-blocked Minnesota 17-5 to zero for the match, despite Minnesota’s 8-7 edge in service aces.
“They were hitting over us,” Bush said Friday. “It’s hard to block someone who’s hitting over you. That’s where our defense picked up. We had way more digs than they did, and that’s where we made up for the lack of blocks.”
Wittman had 19 of the team’s 83 digs Friday, and senior libero Jessica Granquist had 24. The Nittany Lions had just 68 digs as a team.
The Gophers return to the Sports Pavilion on Wednesday night to play Michigan State (18-8, 7-7 Big Ten).
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
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