LINCOLN — The six-match winning streak for the Nebraska volleyball team has been built largely on the back of its defense. The No. 3-ranked Huskers held five of those six opponents to a .226 hitting mark or lower, with four of them failing to reach .200.
But Nebraska's opponent Sunday, No. 10 Minnesota, represents a step up offensively, led by an architect with impeccable credentials.
The Gophers, who will face off with Nebraska (14-2, 6-1 Big Ten) at 2 p.m. in the NU Coliseum, have been transformed under first-year coach Hugh McCutcheon, who arrived in Minneapolis after leading the U.S. men's and women's teams to medals at the past two Olympics.
“It's great for our conference,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “It's a huge statement when you hire a national team coach about how important volleyball is. There's a lot of great coaches in our conference. It's going to make everybody better. That's why you've got seven (Big Ten) teams ranked right now.”
McCutcheon coached the U.S. men to the gold medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing before taking over the women's national team, which took the silver medal this summer in London. Despite agreeing to take over the Minnesota program in 2011, McCutcheon didn't conduct his first practice with the Gophers until late August of this year, after Minnesota had already played a pair of matches.
But Minnesota (15-3, 6-1 Big Ten) has responded quickly. McCutcheon's system was implemented last year in his absence when lead assistant Laura Bush ran the team, but the Gophers' attacking has made the leap in his first season in Minneapolis. After ranking eighth in the conference last year with a .233 mark, Minnesota is hitting .315, which is second in the Big Ten and just two percentage points behind Penn State.
“Minnesota is a great team. They have attackers in every position,” Nebraska outside hitter Gina Mancuso said. “We're going to have to put on a defensive show.”
Cook said the Gophers run a style seen in international volleyball, with a fast tempo and sets going to attackers in unpredictable positions.
“They'll have an opposite that goes all the way around,” Cook said. “They probably set in the back row more than any team we've played this year.”
The main beneficiary of the Gophers' retooled offense is senior outside hitter Katherine Harms, who was third on the team a year ago when she averaged 2.82 kills per set. This season, Harms has become Minnesota's top attacking option and leads the Big Ten with 4.45 kills per game.
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The Gophers return most of their other weapons from a year ago, too, including 2011 leading attacker Ashley Wittman, who was second in the league last year with 4.48 kills per set. Wittman still provides a punch this year at 2.94 kills per game, and junior Tori Dixon is back as one of the league's top middle blockers. Dixon is second on the team with 3.05 kills per set and is second in the Big Ten with a .440 hitting mark.
Junior setter Alexandra Palmer, a transfer from Santa Clara, has stepped in and won the Gophers' starting job from last year's stater, senior Mia Tabberson.
“You've got to try to get them out of system to make them more predictable and slow them down, because when they're in system they've got a lot of good hitters,” Cook said. “We have to outserve and pass them to have a chance.”
The winner of Sunday's match will sit alone in second place in the Big Ten, one game behind No. 1 Penn State, which remained undefeated in conference play (8-0) Saturday with a win over Indiana.
The Huskers took both meetings with the Gophers last season, rallying from a 2-0 deficit in Minneapolis to win in five games before beating Minnesota in four games in Lincoln.
But one glance at the Gophers' sideline is enough to know Nebraska won't be seeing the same team as last season.
“They're going to be tough. It's going to be a battle,” Mancuso said. “We're going to be here at the Coliseum, so that's going to be an advantage. We're going to work play-by-play.”
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