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Two Gopher women block a spike attempt against Cincinnati.

Senior Erin Martin (13) and freshman Jessy Jones (11) combine for a block against Cincinnati on September 20.

Underdogs no more: U volleyball team ranked number one in the country

U volleyball team ranked number one in the country

By Rick Moore

Originally published on September 25, 2004

There will be no sneaking up on opponents for the University of Minnesota volleyball team the rest of this year. Not like in 2002, when the U stalked and then surged passed Penn State and Wisconsin to capture its first Big Ten title. And not like last year, when the Gophers lost their first four matches of the season before finishing with a flourish--at one point winning 18 of 21 matches and making their first ever trip to the Final Four.

A month into the 2004 season, there is no one left to sneak up on. Two weekends ago, while the Gophers (then ranked No. 5) were winning the Diet Coke Classic tournament at the U's Sports Pavilion, the four teams ahead of them--Southern Cal, Nebraska, UCLA, and Florida (which the Gophers beat in the tourney)--all lost. And when the national rankings came out on September 13, the Gophers found themselves, for the first time ever, ranked No. 1 in the country.

It's the latest leap for a program that has seen considerable success under head coach Mike Hebert, who was named the 2003 Volleyball Magazine National Coach of the Year. "It's clearly an honor [to be ranked No. 1]," says Hebert, who came to the U in 1996. "I think all coaches and athletes work their entire careers to be the best. When an honor like this comes along, there's a lot of gratitude."

"We are one of the teams that's capable of winning the national championship," says Mike Hebert. "That's the good news. The bad news is there are probably 15 other teams that are also capable."

He was also quick to point out that a high ranking doesn't guarantee better preparation or continued success, and that this year's team, despite the recent hype, is doing a good job of staying focused.

There were some question marks coming into this year, like how the Gophers would fill the shoes of Cassie Busse, who as a senior was a first-team All-American and the 2003 Big Ten Player of the Year. They've answered Busse's loss by improving their middle attack and effectively implementing a two-setter offense, adding Kelly Bowman opposite of senior setter Lindsey Taatjes. And Hebert is very happy with the play of the "three amigos"--Marci Peniata, Lisa Reinhart, and Brazilian Paula Gentil--who are all adept at defense and ball control.

If you go:

If it's been a few years since you've attended a volleyball match, you may notice a few changes. Beginning in 2001, collegiate volleyball adopted international rules, which are different in two primary ways:

> There is a new position, the libero, who wears a different-colored jersey than her teammates. A defensive specialist, the libero can substitute for any back-row player but is not allowed to spike the ball. Effective this year, the libero can now serve in place of one player in the rotation.

> Points are awarded on a rally-scoring basis, i.e., there is a point awarded on each play, not just when a team is serving. Each game is played to 30 points (rather than 15 in the old system) and a team must win by two points. Matches are still scored in a best-of-five-games format, but if a fifth game is necessary, it only goes to 15 points.

But the fact that the Gophers were able to leapfrog four other teams in one week to take over the top ranking was a surprise even to Hebert, especially considering the recent dominance of a select few teams like Stanford, Hawaii, and Southern Cal (which knocked the Gophers out of last year's Final Four on its way to the national championship).

"I don't believe there are any teams this year on the national landscape that have separated themselves from the pack," he says. "We are one of the teams that's capable of winning the national championship. That's the good news. The bad news is there are probably 15 other teams that are also capable."

The intimate Pavilion has become one of the livelier volleyball venues in the country. Last year's average attendance topped 2,400 (sixth best in the nation), and a key, late-season match against Penn State was seen by nearly 5,000 fans. Hebert envisions regular crowds of 3,000 to 4,000 fans, and the Pavilion could, he says, "become one of the encampments for Division I volleyball."

Whether Gopher volleyball becomes the next big ticket in town--a la women's basketball the last two years--remains to be seen, especially given the competition with pro and college football. But first-time spectators, with or without a knowledge of volleyball strategy, are likely to be thrilled with the pace and excitement of college volleyball, especially the brand played by the number one team in the country.

The Gophers opened their Big Ten season with a pair of home wins over the weekend, running their consecutive victory streak to 12. They swept Michigan State 30-16, 30-18, 30-19 on Friday, and followed that up with a Satruday evening sweep of Michigan, 30-26, 30-17, 30-27. The U's next home matches will be October 8 and 9 versus Wisconsin and Northwestern.

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