Vacation and competition intertwined on Gophers’ trip across the pond

Robert Mews

It’s not often a sports team can call a road trip a vacation.

But when Minnesota’s volleyball team starts a seven-match, 12-day European tour June 12, it might be as close to one as some of the players have ever had.

“It’s my first time actually going overseas,” senior Malama Peniata said. “We’re really excited and just excited to go see different places and meet different people.”

The Gophers will spend the first six days of the trip in the Czech Republic. The team will play Olymp Praha and Slavia Praha in Prague.

The players will finish the six days in the Czech Republic both sightseeing and playing a pair of matches in the city of Brno – although the opponents have not been determined yet.

Minnesota then heads to Vienna, Austria, followed by Maribor, Slovenia, and will finish the tour in Venice, Italy.

Vienna and Venice are strictly sightseeing stops, as the team won’t be playing any volleyball.

However, in Maribor, the Gophers will take on the Croatian Junior Team twice and the Slovenian National Team once.

While the list of cities and places includes many popular vacation spots, the team was notified in a team meeting last week that they must balance vacationing and focusing on volleyball.

“We’re really focused on improving our volleyball skills and improving as a team,” senior Meredith Nelson said. “But we’re also focused on having an enjoyable experience.”

Coach Mike Hebert said he likes to think of the trip not so much as a vacation, but more of an “educational” experience.

“I think one of the most valuable things someone can do is spend some time outside their own culture so they can gain a perspective looking back into their way of life,” he said.

Hebert also said the timing of the trip was planned according to NCAA rules and so it would be most beneficial to the team.

NCAA teams are allowed to take these trips once every four years. So in a season when the Gophers return 13 of their 16 players this fall, this summer was an opportune time.

Nelson also talked about the bonding experience the team will have when it goes overseas together.

“During the preseason we don’t get much of a chance to really bond, just because we’re practicing all the time,” she said. “So it will be nice for our team chemistry to kind of travel together.”

Hebert added that when the team takes these trips, players respond to one another fairly well during the regular season.

He also said it gives the team a chance to try some different things on the volleyball court against tough international competition.

“We were anemic last season, offensively,” he said. “We were good, but we needed to be better offensively. This will give us an opportunity to try some things without penalty of suffering a loss.”

Nelson said the trip will be fun but challenging.

“I think we’re just going to use it more as an experience for us to get some skills playing against different styles of defense than what we usually see,” she said.