Minnesota knew it was in for a tough weekend of volleyball with the defending conference champs from the SEC, Big XII and MVC coming into the Sports Pavilion. Few, however, anticipated that the Gophers (7-1) would emerge from the weekend as the #1 team in America according to the AVCA Coaches' Poll. After defeating #15 Kansas State 3-2 on Friday night and #4 Florida 3-2 on Saturday night, and watching #1 USC, #2 Nebraska and #3 UCLA fall on Saturday, Minnesota came out and defeated border-rival Northern Iowa 3-1 on Sunday. On Monday afternoon, the coaches rewarded the team by naming the #1, narrowly, over Southern California, the team responsible for the Gophers lone loss on the season.
On Friday night, Minnesota opened their home season with a tough match with Kansas State. The Wildcats were coming off a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Florida in the tournaments opening match Thursday night. What ensued was an exciting match that featured gritty defensive performances from both teams. By about 9:30 pm on Friday night, a crowd of 1,729 in the steamy Sports Pavilion had witnessed one of the closest, and longest matches for Minnesota since the NCAA adopted rally-scoring in 2001. The Gophers prevailed 30-28 26-30 26-30 30-27 15-13 after Tree Bratford
finished the match on back-to-back kills, allowing her to tie her career-high with 26 kills on the night. Minnesota was led on offense by senior Erin Martin
, who had 27 kills. The story of the match was defense, as neither team could get into an offensive flow. Liberos Paula Gentil
for Minnesota and Angie Lastra
for Kansas State were both phenomenal, registering 34 and 36 digs respectively. The Wildcats put on a gritty performance, but fell 15-13 in the fifth game for the second-straight night.
The match between #4 Florida and #5 Minnesota was billed as the game of the week in college volleyball, and it did not disappoint. Similar to Friday night, the match between the Gophers and the defending national runners-up Gators was about as close as it can get in volleyball. After another grueling two hour match, Minnesota prevailed 30-22 28-30 26-30 30-18 17-15. The well-played, exciting match culminated in an overtime fifth game. Minnesota took the lead in the game 5-1, and after a decisive 30-18 win in game 4, looked to be riding the momentum to an easy win. However, Florida fought back and eventually took the lead. The Gophers willed their way back, but Florida staved off match points at 14-13, 15-14 before finally succumbing, 17-15 on a net violation. This match featured great performances by nearly every player on the team. Setter Lindsey Taatjes
was unstoppable as she hit .467 with 8 kills, had 55 assists and 26 digs while setting partner Kelly Bowman
turned in the triple-double with 11 kills, 15 assists and 19 digs to go along with 4 blocks. Middles Meredith Nelson
and Jessica Byrnes
both continued their strong play, Nelson recorded a career-high 15 kills, while Byrnes had 10 kills, both hit .333. Trisha Bratford
led the way for Minnesota with 17 kills, although she also accounted for 16 errors. Erin Martin
added her usual strong stat-line with 16 kills and 5 blocks. Florida was led by Jane Collymore
's 28 kills and Sheri Williams
accounted for 14 kills and 6 blocks.
During the evening on Saturday, #2 Nebraska was stunned by unranked Florida A&M at home and #1 USC had its NCAA-record win streak snapped by the Illini. Then, early in the morning, the Rainbow Wahine of Hawaii took down #3 UCLA down in paradise. These three outcomes coupled with Minnesota's defeat of #4 Florida allowed Minnesota to be playing for a shot at the #1 ranking as well as the Diet Coke Classic Championship when they took on Northern Iowa on Sunday afternoon. The Gophers came out noticeably flat while not playing their signature high-energy defense. The Panthers took advantage by taking game one 30-26. The second game stayed close until Northern Iowa encountered the tough serve of Paula Gentil
, and the Gophers went on a decisive run to take game two, 30-25. The final two games were both entertaining, and Minnesota prevailed 32-30 and 30-24 to win the match, and the Diet Coke Classic 3-1. The star of the match was junior Jessica Byrnes
, who was fantastic with 15 kills while hitting at a strong .462 clip. Byrnes rescued the team while the rest of the girls were having troubles putting balls away. In the end, Byrnes timely kills coupled with renewed defensive energy led Minnesota to victory. Named to the Diet Coke Classic All Tournament Team were: Erin Martin
, Minnesota, MVP, Paul Gentil
, Minnesota, Amber Lystra
, Kansas State, Rachel Tink
, Northern Iowa, Jane Collymore
, Florida, and Sheri Williams
This weekend, the top-ranked Gophers head to Chapel Hill, NC., where they'll be the favorite to win the North Carolina tournament. The tournament features Rice, #20 Loyola Marymount and host North Carolina. While the tournament will not be as tough as last weekend, the Gophers will have to play good volleyball to retain their #1 ranking. Loyola Marymount will be a stiff challenge, as they are battle-tested coming out of the always tough West Coast Conference.
Minnesota returns home for a Monday match-up on Sept. 20th with Cincinnati. This is a great time in Gopher Volleyball history This is an exciting team that deserves more fan support (although Minnesota crowds routinely rank in the nation's top 5) as they're representing the University with such success and class.Talk about the #1 volleyball team in the nation on our Other Gopher Sports message board.