NCAAs take team to Tenn.

Robert Mews

For a team that has gone to back-to-back Final Fours, Minnesota’s volleyball team will be tested early this season to see whether this squad is a real contender for another deep postseason run.

The 17th-ranked Gophers will start the tournament by facing Big South conference champion Winthrop at 4:30 p.m. in Knoxville, Tenn.

The Eagles possess some NCAA Tournament experience as well. Winthrop is making its fourth-straight appearance in the tournament and is making a return trip to Stokely Athletics Center.

However, coach Mike Hebert said the Eagles’ familiarity with the facility won’t make much of a difference.

“That could be a benefit to them for the first few minutes of the match,” Hebert said. “But, after that, I don’t see that it could have any impact.”

While Winthrop has the experience of playing Tennessee’s venue, the team doesn’t have the experience of winning a tournament match during the past three years.

Part of the Eagles’ recent success has literally been in the hands of outside hitter Mary Hock. Hock is an unusual front row player, because she is only 5 feet, 9 inches tall and leads the team with 4.40 kills per game, 1.08 service aces per game and is second on the team with 3.14 digs per game.

“Generally, when you play someone that’s a little bit shorter, they’re a very crafty player,” senior middle blocker Jessica Byrnes said.

Despite Hock’s height, she does present another challenge for Minnesota ” she is left-handed, something the Gophers haven’t faced much this season.

“They have a couple of left-handed hitters that we’re going to have to learn to deal with,” junior middle blocker Meredith Nelson said.

Nelson said the team practiced blocking against left-handed hitters in Monday’s practice. She also said the team should be prepared for Hock, because they have played against a similar player in Purdue’s Kellie Miller.

“We’re going to have to be very disciplined as a defense,” Nelson said. “Both blocking and in the backcourt.”

Defensively, the match could prove to be Paula Gentil’s chance to make history. She needs only 10 more digs to become the NCAA’s all-time leader.

Such a feat might help boost the Gophers emotions in a high-stress tournament match, but the team may not need the extra motivation.

“We aren’t seeded in the tournament,” Nelson said. “And I think that has given us a little bit more motivation.”

If the Gophers are to move on tonight, they will possibly face Tennessee or Jacksonville State on Saturday.

Minnesota almost faced Tennessee in last years’ regionals at the Sports Pavilion, but Ohio State knocked the Volunteers out of the tournament before the teams could meet.

“Tennessee appears at this point, to not have what I would call weaknesses,” Hebert said.

Hebert added that the Volunteers have moved to a 6-2 alignment, the same offense that Minnesota runs. That offense helped Tennessee upset No. 11 Notre Dame last weekend.

“It’s going to be tough the whole time,” Byrnes said of the tournament this season, “because the field is so good this year.”