A sigh of relief for Minnesota after getting into NCAA Tournament

Usually the Gophers are a shoo-in, but this year, things were a little different.

by Mark Heise

For the Minnesota volleyball team, making the NCAA tournament hasn’t been an issue in recent years.

But this year, when the Gophers’ name appeared in the bracket as an unranked qualifier, there was a momentary sigh of relief at the selection show party at Williams Arena.

“You’re always a little nervous,” junior setter Rachel Hartmann said. “But we’re definitely excited, and pretty confident going in with a few wins in the last couple of weeks.”

But once the excitement wore down, Minnesota (18-12 overall) was left staring at its second-round paring, scheduled to play against the top-ranked team in the nation, Stanford, at Stanford.

Assuming the Gophers can top their first opponent Sacramento State on Friday, Minnesota will have to turn around immediately to play the team picked to win the entire tournament.

“You know me, I’m always a glass half-full type of guy,” coach Mike Hebert said. “And the opportunity to play the No. 1 seed this early in the tournament is something that doesn’t come around very often. For us, it’s an opportunity for greatness.”

Hebert recalled the match against Stanford earlier this season, when the Cardinals topped the Gophers 3-1 in Minnesota, saying that his team is capable of playing with any team.

Stanford (27-2) has lost just two matches all season long, but one of the two did come at home, as Washington came away with a five-game win, riding its strong serving along with libero Tamari Miyashiro’s 37 digs.

Aside from that, the Cardinals have been strong all year, hitting an amazing .311 as a team while having three different players collecting over four kills per game.

But despite going up against such a strong, balanced offense, junior outside hitter Kyla Roehrig said she felt confident in her team’s chances.

“I think it’s a good opportunity,” she said. “Mike made us play them in preseason, and yeah, they’re good. But we’re good too, and we can match up to them just as well as any other team can.”

But Minnesota doesn’t have a sure path into that matchup, as the Gophers will have to take on Sacramento State in hopes of earning a shot at Stanford.

The Hornets have put together another solid season, and continue to be one of the perennial competitors in the tournament, earning their 10th berth in 11 years.

Sacramento State has a definite leader in senior outside hitter Missie Stidham. Stidham averages 5.32 kills per game, while senior middle blocker Lindsay Haupt provides a good counter-punch with 3.67 kills per game and a .359 hitting percentage.

“They’ve got good ball control, a lot of defense and a lot of counter-attacking. It’s kind of like a fast-break basketball team,” Hebert said. “We’re probably bigger and more physical, and we’re going to emphasize the things that we do well.”