New position lifts women’s volleyball team

by Ben Goessling

But he can recall in vivid detail his account of who Heffernan discovered.

“Brian called me from Orlando and told me he’d found a kid too good to pass up,” Hebert said. “She was probably good enough to play in college last year.”

Paula Gentil, a 5-foot-9 freshman who hails from Fortaleza Ceara’, Brazil, by way of Orlando, represents the future of Minnesota volleyball. A former soccer goalie with lightning reflexes and keen court awareness, Gentil has become a star in just five collegiate matches.

Gentil plays the new libero position – a defensive specialist who can rotate into the backrow without counting as a substitution but cannot serve or spike – and was recruited primarily because Hebert saw the tide of college volleyball changing.

With the implementation of the libero this season and rally scoring last year, the face of the game has been drastically revamped. Because a point is now scored on every touch of the ball, defense and ball control are more important than ever.

Hebert has been remolding the Gophers’ attack for the past year, and the results have played a large part in Minnesota’s early-season success. The Gophers (5-1), picked sixth in the Big Ten, rose to No. 20 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll this week.

Gentil’s addition immediately patched up Minnesota’s ball control, which often suffered last season.

As a team, Minnesota has 336 digs for the year, or 99 more than it did at this point last year. Gentil has 105 of the team’s digs this season.

“I knew the defense would be better this year, but I didn’t know Paula was as good as she is,” Hebert said. “With her in the lineup, we’ve become a good defensive team and a great passing team.”

Gentil’s ability to field almost any ball means setter Lindsey Vander Well usually receives a good pass, which in turn allows hitter Cassie Busse to employ her power game.

In addition, the confident freshman is one of the team’s most savvy and vocal players on the floor.

“I don’t think (my teammates) were surprised by that,” Gentil said. “In Brazil, if you don’t talk, you don’t play.”

After improving the team’s defense by signing Gentil, Hebert reformed the Gophers’ offense to capitalize on the scoring opportunities created by the new system.

Minnesota features five jump-servers this season, a result of Hebert’s effort to force more errors.

“You can’t afford to blink with rally scoring,” Hebert said. “Errors are more costly, so you have to serve tough. Serving has become a much more dominant part of the game.”

Hebert said a serve which creates a “one-pass”, where the opposing team’s only option is to return the ball on its first touch, results in a point for the serving team 90 percent of the time.

Busse, who was named the Big Ten Player of the Week last week and the Most Valuable Player of the Florida Atlantic Tournament last weekend, has already amassed 21 service aces for the year.

“She’s become a serving goddess,” Hebert said. “Her serve has been very impressive this year.”

While the changes to the game have proved fortuitous for the Gophers, many coaches object to the new rules, which were added primarily to give the college game the same rules as international and club volleyball.

“I don’t think like the idea we should chase international volleyball,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “I like the rule, but it’s just not our mission to chase someone else.”

Rose added he disapproved of rally scoring

Michigan State coach Chuck Erbe said he voted against the libero rule because it creates too much specialization.

“It’s too cumbersome,” Erbe said. “The natural instinct for any player is to use overhand action, and we had two situations last weekend where we lost points because our libero hit an overhand. It’s great for international volleyball, but in college, the game should be looser.”

But Hebert, citing the fact that most players used the libero rule in club volleyball, said college and international ball should be playing the same game.

“There are plenty of purists who didn’t like the libero,” he said. “But it’s not a big adjustment for most athletes, and we should be playing the same game.”

Needless to say, Gentil doesn’t mind the rule, either.

“Minnesota was one of the only schools that recruited me to be a libero,” she said. “I’ve been a hitter all my life, and I never liked it. This just suits my game better.”

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]