Volleyball makes its case for a women’s hoops-like switch

by Aaron Blake

Even after she managed to add a right shoulder injury to her laundry list of ailments, Minnesota volleyball senior Paula Gentil was so encouraged by the nearly 11,000 people in attendance Saturday evening at Williams Arena that she lifted the wrapped and iced arm, ever so slightly, after the game.

“They did the wave,” she said, imitating the popular spectacle of sporting event crowds.

The point: You can’t do the wave at the Sports Pavilion. The walls parallel to either baseline of the court don’t allow for the circular cheer because there aren’t any stands in front of them.

You also can’t cram 10,927 people into the Sport Pavilion. If the second-ranked Gophers keep rolling and dominating teams as they did No. 23 Illinois on Saturday, the Sports Pavilion will become obsolete for them just as it did for the women’s basketball team after it drew 11,389 versus Indiana on Jan. 27, 2002.

The volleyball team’s new attendance record – which almost doubled the old mark of 6,046 and is the highest in the country this year by nearly 2,300 people – could force athletics officials to make a similar choice for this women’s team very soon.

If the Gophers hold their next home game on Oct. 24 at the 5,700-capacity Sports Pavilion, there’s a good chance a significant number of people will have to be turned away at the door.

Athletics Director Joel Maturi said Sunday that the athletics department was not yet considering a permanent move but it will entertain the idea of moving certain matches to Williams Arena.

The home court advantage that goes along with the Sports Pavilion is a factor in all of this as well. And until the attendance is consistently too much for the Sports Pavilion to handle, Maturi said, the issue will be handled on a match-by-match basis.

The players said they didn’t expect that massive of a crowd Saturday, and they sure hadn’t considered a move to the other side of the wall that separates the Sports Pavilion from Williams Arena.

“I don’t think we’ve really even fathomed that right now,” senior outside hitter Erin Martin said.

Junior middle blocker Jessica Byrnes then offered a little loyalty.

“I love the Sports Pavilion,” she said. “I don’t want to leave. It’d be great to fill it up every night, though.”

Enter coach Mike Hebert, the voice of reason.

“However,” he said, “should 11,000 people keep showing up Ö “

And they all agreed it would be worth the move.

Sure they offered tickets for $1, and sure they promoted the match as an effort to break the attendance record.

But the rise of this women’s team appears all too familiar at this point. And don’t be surprised if the legions of fans begin forcing the words “permanent move” to creep into that dialogue inside the administrative offices at the Bierman athletic complex.

One thing’s for sure – the Gophers won some new fans Saturday.

“It was interesting – the crowd was very quiet in the beginning,” Hebert said. “I think there were a lot of first-timers, and they didn’t know quite what to expect. But they seemed to warm up pretty well as the match went on.”

And as the cold season in Minnesota begins, they might have just found a new place to warm up.

Along with the team.