The Gophers volleyball team split its first home Big Ten matches Friday and Saturday at the Sports Pavilion, beating No. 22 Ohio State before falling to No. 1 Penn State.
After sweeping the Buckeyes in straight sets to improve to 3-0 in the conference, Minnesota got a reality check in a lopsided straight-set loss to the Nittany Lions.
As head coach Hugh McCutcheon said, “They’re ranked No. 1 in the nation for a reason.”
Top-ranked Penn State looked beatable after starting off the match with two service errors. The Gophers kept the first set close with 10 ties and three lead changes, but they ultimately fell 25-23.
Once the Nittany Lions found their rhythm, Minnesota failed to keep up. Penn State hammered the Gophers 25-8 in the second set.
“Once the floodgates opened in the second, they took full advantage of our tentative play,” McCutcheon said.
“I think they got hot, and obviously we struggled to maintain our composure when it started steamrolling,” McCutcheon said. “They’ve got a lot of weapons. They’ve got a lot of different ways they can attack you, and when all cylinders are firing, they’re pretty imposing.”
McCutcheon also said his team was capable of playing better. The team especially struggled with passing, which forced it out of system on many occasions.
Freshman libero Lindsey Lawmaster had five receiving errors and only made eight digs, second-best to junior setter Alexandra Palmer’s 12.
McCutcheon said the youth and inexperience on his squad was also a disadvantage, since playing a good team in front of a big crowd is overwhelming.
However, Penn State wasn’t entirely unstoppable, according to McCutcheon.
“I’m not sure they played particularly fast. I think we knocked them out of system a little bit,” McCutcheon said. “But they took some nice high swings, and our defense didn’t make the adjustments that we would have liked to have made.”
Penn State’s setter, sophomore Micha Hancock, was active during the match, McCutcheon said. She often hit the ball over the net early, catching the Gophers’ defense off-guard. She finished with four kills and two aces.
Minnesota was able to redeem itself slightly by recording 20 points in the last set. But in all, McCutcheon said the match had “opportunities lost and lessons learned.”
He said his team needs to work on the choices it makes and avoiding unforced errors more than execution. The Gophers made 20 hitting errors during the Penn State match.
Senior outside hitter Katherine Harms led the way for the Gophers with 13 kills. She had five hitting errors as well, but she gave credit to Penn State for making it hard to score.
“They definitely put up some great blocks,” Harms said. “The way I’ve been hitting this year, I knew that at some point I was going to get that double block.”
Harms also said her team learned a lot from its encounter with the nation’s top-ranked team and will improve for its next meeting with Penn State.
“I’m really excited that we’re going to have another chance to play them this season,” Harms said.
Minnesota sweeps Ohio State
The Gophers defeated Ohio State in straight sets Friday despite an unexpected system change by the Buckeyes.
McCutcheon said the opponents had been running a 5-1 system — one setter and five hitters — throughout their season. But the Buckeyes brought a 6-2 system — two setters who can also attack — to Minnesota.
“They came out … with a system that I think was specifically designed to try and exploit some of the weaknesses that we have,” McCutcheon said Friday. “We weren’t in our most comfortable offensive rhythm for most of the match.”
McCutcheon also said Ohio State switched the position of its outside hitters.
Even though the system switch was an added obstacle, McCutcheon said it was a good learning moment for his team, which was able to make the necessary adjustments quickly.
“It pushed us. It forced us to have to make changes, and that’s important,” McCutcheon said Friday. “We’ve got to understand that it’s not always going to be rainbows and ponies out there. Sometimes it’s going to be hard, and it was hard tonight.”
The match wasn’t an easy win for the Gophers. Although the team won in straight sets, the set scores were close at 25-23, 25-23 and 25-22.
Ohio State kept the match close. In the first set alone, there were 12 ties and five lead changes before the Gophers went on a 7-0 run.
Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said even while the team struggled to adapt to Ohio State’s new system, it didn’t let frustration take over.
“It’s really important … if we make an error, not to dwell on it,” Dixon said. “Hugh always says that it’s his job to get mad at us, and we just always have to stay positive.”
In the second set, freshman outside hitter Daly Santana scored three aces in one service run to help the Gophers to the win.
“I think the way she serves is pretty special. … She can hit it hard, and she hits it with good rhythm, and when she misses, it’s not by much,” McCutcheon said. “My gosh, she’s certainly a potent force back there.”
While Santana tallied three aces, she also recorded five service errors. But McCutcheon said he expects her to become more consistent and upgrade her skill even more.
Santana also led her team with 14 kills along with Harms. Dixon, who had a second-best seven kills, said the versatility of the Gophers’ offense is beneficial.
“[We try to] get Daly the ball more and just spread our offense because I think it makes the block on the other side guess a little,” Dixon said. “I think that adds a lot to our offense because we have a lot of options.”
Dixon ended the match with an ace. The Gophers had led 20-15 in the third set, but they allowed Ohio State back to within one point at 22-21 before finishing off the visitors.
Minnesota is now 12-3 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten. The team will look to bounce back Wednesday against Michigan at the Sports Pavilion.