A rematch of the 2004 NCAA Volleyball National Championship, the Minnesota Golden Gophers will take on Stanford in the Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA volleyball tournament. Having never beaten Stanford, No. 10 Minnesota is looking for their first win over the PAC-12 powerhouse in program history on Friday in Lexington, Ky.
Stanford comes in ranked No. 7 in the country and will be one of the toughest opponents the Maroon and Gold will have seen all season. Minnesota dispatched of fellow PAC-12 foe Colorado in five sets in their second round match, but the Cardinal resemble their tree mascot and have plenty of height and power to throw at the Gophers.
Led by the middle blocking combination of Inky Ajanaku and Carly Wopat, Stanford towers over their opponents and brings an intimidation factor to the floor that is seldom seen on the hard court.
Minnesota should not be intimidated or flustered heading into Memorial Coliseum on the campus of the University of Kentucky Wildcats for the regionals. The Gophers have already played two tough opponents in that gym this season with some success.
Back in September, the Gophers competed in the Bluegrass Battle and earned a straight-set win over Louisville, followed by a five set loss against then No. 19 Kentucky. Those two games helped give Minnesota some confidence heading into the weekend.
“I think we’re really lucky to have the opportunity of already playing in Lexington,” Minnesota senior middle blocker Tori Dixon said. “We got an overall feel for the environment there, which is a really big advantage heading into an unfamiliar gym.”
If Minnesota can get past Stanford, they will face a familiar opponent in the next round. Big Ten opponents Michigan State and No. 2 seed Penn State will play in the other regional semifinal and the winners from Friday will match up on Saturday afternoon.
The Sweet 16 match will serve up at 6 p.m. CT with live video available online via ESPN3.com. The Elite Eight match is scheduled for 3 p.m. CT on Saturday with national television coverage provided by ESPNU.
This is the fifth-straight NCAA Sweet 16 appearance for Minnesota and are looking for back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight. The Gophers are one of seven Big Ten conference teams still playing in the NCAA tournament — the most of any conference.
Penn State defeated Minnesota in last year’s Elite Eight showdown in West Lafayette, ending the first season for Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon, but he feels pretty good about his team heading into the contest against Stanford.
“If we can play with some discipline, if we can manage the serve/serve-receive battle and keep our sideout rhythm up, I think we are in for a good match,” McCutcheon said.