For the majority of players on the Gophers volleyball team, this weekend will be a welcome back to the Sweet 16.
Minnesota has had mixed success in recent years in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
After its Final Four run in 2009, Minnesota lost last year in the Sweet 16 as the No. 10 seed to California, the No. 7 seed.
This year, the No. 13-seeded Gophers play No. 4-seeded Iowa State — but with two advantages they didn’t have last year: home court and experience.
“For a team that’s been on the road for 15 of our first 21 matches, it’s nice to finally be at home and be here for a while,” Minnesota interim head coach Laura Bush said.
When Minnesota took to its home court in Saturday’s second round match against Washington trailing 2-0 in sets, every Gophers player in the rotation had tournament experience beyond the first weekend.
That experience paid off, as the Gophers rallied to defeat Washington in five sets behind career nights from juniors Katherine Harms and Mia Tabberson.
Sophomore Ashley Wittman said there were some nerves to start the Washington match.
“Everyone knew that they were a good team, and we were definitely going to have to perform,” Wittman said. “I was definitely a little nervous because I knew it was going to be a fight.”
In 2010, the nerves of Minnesota’s underclassmen may have proved costly as the team blew late leads in each of the three sets it lost in the Sweet 16.
“Last year we were kind of nervous as freshmen going in to play Cal on the road,” Wittman said. “This year, I’m more comfortable, definitely.”
The Gophers’ other two sophomores — Tori Dixon and Steffi Sooter — also had their share of late-season struggles in 2010. In the loss to California, Dixon had four kills and hit .154, while Sooter had two receiving errors.
But both have played well down the stretch in 2011. Dixon’s efficient hitting earned her Mideast All-Region honors this week, while Sooter hasn’t made a receiving error in her last three matches.
Minnesota’s upperclassmen have played better lately as well. On Tuesday, Bush commended all three of her seniors — Hailey Cowles, Jessica Granquist and Ariana Filho — for their contributions to Saturday’s win.
Cowles missed the team’s Sweet 16 run last season with a knee injury but played an instrumental part in its 2009 Final Four run.
She’s shown signs of her old self late in 2011, tallying 40 kills and 59 digs in her last four matches.
“Hailey Cowles is returning to the Hailey Cowles we saw at the end of the 2009 season,” Bush said. “She’s taken on a huge left-side hitting role after we had a player depart the program.”
Perhaps equally important is that she brings experience to the table and an understanding of what it takes to go deep in the NCAA tournament.
“Once you make it into the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, you get more into the power volleyball with the big hitters and the big blockers,” Cowles said. “It’s just really important to come out and serve and pass well and play consistent volleyball.
She added: “There’s not many times that we can play like we did against Washington in the first and second set and still come out and win.”
Iowa State is not a power volleyball team, but it does play solid defense. The Cyclones averaged two more digs per match than their opponents during the regular season, and also out-dug their first- and second-round opponents, Milwaukee and Miami (FL).
Minnesota has a 152-128 edge in digs through two rounds, including a 95-74 advantage Saturday.
Bush said defense will be the primary focus in practice this week.
“The offense will work itself out as the match progresses,” Bush said. “It’s hard to script an offense in volleyball, but we do have some places where we’d like to send the ball to our hitters.”
The Gophers’ strategy on offense has appeared inconsistent in 2011. After focusing on setting the team’s blockers late in the regular season, Tabberson set her outside hitters much more last weekend.
Both strategies have worked, as Minnesota has won a season-high five consecutive matches and 15 consecutive sets with Tabberson setting.
Despite Bush’s decision to switch back and forth between Tabberson and freshman Kellie McNeil at setter throughout the season, Tabberson played the “best volleyball of her career” Saturday, according to Bush.
“She stopped worrying about being perfect,” Bush said. “She stopped worrying and placing and guiding her sets, and she just let herself go. When she wants to control her game too much, it doesn’t go very well.”
Since she regained her starting job Nov. 19, Tabberson has averaged 14.3 assists per set. Despite splitting court time with McNeil, she leads the Big Ten with 12.15 assists per set this season.
Bush said she has already told the players which setter will play Friday, but said she preferred to not disclose her pick.
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