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Dawn Peterson

Gopher volleyball fan Dawn Peterson also followed the team to last year's Final Four in Dallas.

Other fans pale in comparison

By Rick Moore

Published on December 20, 2004

It wasn't hard to find signs of Minnesota in Long Beach, California, this weekend--weather notwithstanding.

Gopher fans who made the journey west to watch the University of Minnesota volleyball team compete in the Final Four were here in impressive numbers. By the time the first ball was served in Saturday's championship match against the Stanford Cardinal, the Minnesota fan contingent in Long Beach Arena was large, enthusiastic, and decidedly maroon and gold.

The Gopher faithful included athletic director Joel Maturi; the University band; parents, grandparents, a husband, and other assorted relatives of players; volleyball season ticket holders; casual volleyball observers; and perhaps a few wayward souls looking to add about 60 degrees Fahrenheit to their holiday shopping experience.

"You know what, I'm going to graduate either way," said Hokenson. "So I'm going to come out [to Long Beach]; you can only do that once."

They made enough of an impression in town to be the focus of the page-one lead story in Saturday's Long Beach Press-Telegram. Visiting Gopher fans, the story said, are "the ones with the maroon hats with gold Ms embroidered on the front and, they joke, blindingly pale skin."

Minnesota's victory against USC on Thursday ensured that no one needed to consider heading back home before weekend's end--still blindingly pale--and it gave diehard fan Lorie Gildea a chance to fly to California Friday evening in time for the championship match against Stanford. Gildea, who has been a volleyball season ticket holder for 11 years, was working as an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel until November 30, when she left the U to be a prosecutor for Hennepin County.

"I love my new job, but if I was still at the U, I would have gone out [to Long Beach] on Wednesday with everybody else," she said at the airport gate, clad in her gold "Minnesota" sweatshirt. Apparently, her new employers aren't quite as anxious to give her vacation time in the first month.

Stacy White was one of the first 1,000 people to arrive at the arena on Saturday to receive a souvenir Final Four tote bag. A grad in kinesiology and sports psychology, White was excited about the Gophers' chances after seeing their four-game win over USC in the semifinals. "I've been to their matches a couple of times this year," she said. "That's the best I've seen them play."

White, like Gildea, was quick to give unsolicited credit to Minnesota's head coach, Mike Hebert, who has led the Gophers to two consecutive Final Four appearances. "I think Mike Hebert's done an amazing job with the program," she said, adding that Minnesota's success is helping volleyball in the Midwest in general.

Though she has no formal affiliation with the University, super-fan Dawn Peterson of Minneapolis--adorned in a maroon and gold boa--was making her third Final Four journey in the past year. "I'm just a big fan of women's basketball and volleyball," she said. In addition to Long Beach, she traveled to Dallas for the 2003 Final Four, and this spring went New Orleans to watch the Gopher women's basketball team compete in its first-ever Final Four.

"Because of [freshman] Jessy Jones, I know the program is going to be in good hands," Peterson said. "I told her, 'Because of you, I'm going to be a season ticket holder.'" And she speaks from some volleyball experience. Peterson's claim to fame was playing semi-pro volleyball on the beaches in New Jersey, where she even won some money.

One fan who was staring intently at the court moments before the match began was asked if he was an alum, a student, or had some connection to one of the players. It turns that all three tags apply for Wade Hokenson, more or less. Senior volleyball player Amanda Hokenson is his wife; he is a student studying mechanical engineering; and, if things go as planned, he'll graduate this month. And as for the final exam he could have been studying for back in Minnesota, Hokenson did the math and came up with a very passable rationalization: "You know what, I'm going to graduate either way," he said. "So I'm going to come out [to Long Beach]; you can only do that once."

Of course, all of the Gopher fans were predicting a Minnesota win against Stanford, most in four games. Although the final result was quite the opposite (Stanford won 30-23, 30-27, 30-21), that didn't diminish the fans' appreciation of Minnesota's amazing season-long reign among the nation's elite volleyball teams. Many attended a post-match reception at the team's hotel for one final chance to salute the players and coaches.

"It was a great season," said Barry Rittenhouse, whose daughters played in the White Bear Lake volleyball program with Gopher senior Lisa Rinehart. "I think they did better than they possibly thought they could. And it was a joy to watch."

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