Dec. 10, 2009

By Judd Spicer
Special to

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Golden Gopher women's volleyball team returned home to Minnesota having brought a storm with them -- literally.

Amidst a mid-week snowfall that dumped a pile of powder on the Twin Cities, the Gophers are set to host the Minneapolis Regional bracket of the NCAA Division I Volleyball Tournament this weekend, with the advancing to volleyball's version of the Final Four next week in Tampa, Fla.  Minnesota earned a trip back to the frost via a first-round win over Louisville and a straight sets victory over Tennessee on the Lady Vols' home court in Knoxville.  Friday's regional semifinal matches and the ensuing Saturday final mark D-I volleyball's first Sweet 16 at the Sports Pavilion since 2004.  

No. 11 seed Minnesota (26-8) plays No. 25 Colorado State (25-5), Friday at 8 p.m. ET. No. 3 seed Florida State (30-2) plays unranked Kentucky (29-4) in the first semifinal at 6 p.m. ET.

"We're awfully happy to be in the Regional," said Gopher coach Mike Hebert.  "When we saw our first and second round draw, we weren't sure it was going that be an automatic pathway into the regional -- it was pretty tough.  But we're here, we come off of a very strong weekend down in Knoxville and I think the team is probably playing its best volleyball of the season right now."

In regard to the matchup, Hebert added:

"I think we're very similar teams, with a similar balanced attack.  Colorado State plays scrappy defense and they counter-attack very well.  I don't see any holes in their stuff -- they do it all very, very well.  I think it's going to be an even-up match.  As usual, it's going to be about who wins the serve and pass games."

The Gophers are led by 2008 All-American third teamer Lauren Gibbemeyer, a junior mid-blocker from across the river in St. Paul who starred at Cretin-Derham Hall, the same school that produced American League MVP ballplayer, Joe Mauer.  Gibbemeyer, a first team All-Big Ten selection this season, entered the post season with the nation 7th-best hit percentage (.409) along with sporting the 10th-best blocks per set (1.49) in all of D-I.  She is buoyed by senior setter Taylor Carico, a transfer from USC who ranked 72nd in the country with 10.39 assists per set.  As a team, the Gophers rank 11th in blocks per set, with 2.8 per game.  

In what should be a match played oft-above the net, Colorado State comes to Minneapolis fresh off a second-round upset of No.6 Washington. The Rams have won 21 of their last 22, and 2009 is the 15th consecutive year in which they've have made the NCAA's -- although the program has never advanced to the round of Eight.  This is their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2003.

The Rams, ranked 16th in the country in blocks per set (2.7) are charged by junior outside hitter Danielle Minch, the Mountain West Player of the Year who ranked 78th in the nation in kills per set (3.79).  Minnesota-native Tessa Nelson, the senior mid-blocker from Balaton, Minn. (about 170 miles from Minneapolis) readily adds to Colorado State's chances.  Nelson, an All-Mountain West selection, ranks 35th in the country in blocks per set, at 1.26.

"We're very excited to be here.  At this stage of the NCAA Tournament, everybody is good," said Rams' coach Tom Hilbert.  "We started out our season with a lot of uncertainty, a lot of new people playing in different positions.  This whole season has been one of discovery -- of how good we can be."

In the early semi, the Seminoles come to the Twin Cities as winners of 18 straight, having swept their way past Alabama A&M and Jacksonville State in the first two rounds of the tournament.  The ACC champs are the first team from their conference to advance to the round of 16 since Georgia Tech did so in 2004.  Florida State, with the country's fourth-best hitting percentage (.302), is led by ACC Player of the Year Brianna Barry who sported the NCAA's second-best hitting clip, at .510 percent.  Fellow senior mid-blocker Jordana Price has complimented with a hitting percentage of .354 and 1.32 blocks per set, the latter good for 21st in the nation.

Kentucky makes its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1992.  The Wildcats also swept their way to Minneapolis, with straight-set wins over Michigan State and Oregon.  The upstart `Cats are making their fifth-consecutive tournament appearance in coach Craig Skinner's fifth year at the helm, and entered the post-season with the seventh-best kills per set rank at 14.73, along with the No. 10 hitting percentage of .281.

Leading Kentucky onto the court are all-SEC first teamers Sarah Romley and Sarah Mendoza.  Romley, a senior setter, ranks 10th in the nation with 11.12 assists per set while Mendoza, a junior outside hitter was 39th in the country with 4.11 kills per set.  Senior libero BriAnne Sauer offers 4.47 digs per set and sophomore Gretchen Giesler averaged 1.09 blocks per set and a .344 hitting clip as a mid-blocker.