U volleyball eyes NCAA tournament

by Tim Klobuchar

Now that the second half of the Big Ten season is upon them, the Gophers volleyball team has to admit it has a very good chance to make the NCAA tournament at the end of the year.
During the first half, while they were in the midst of surprising everybody else, it was still too early to worry about the post-season. But now, with a 16-7 overall record and a 7-3 mark in the Big Ten, the opportunity can’t be ignored anymore — not that some players don’t want to.
“We know that it is a definite possibility,” Gophers junior Sarah Pearman said. “But if we start focusing on that, we lose sight of our short-term goals, what we want to accomplish in the Big Ten.”
What Minnesota wants to accomplish this weekend is a home sweep of Illinois and Iowa, both of whom are looking to avenge losses to the Gophers on their courts earlier this year.
Minnesota is in a three-way tie for third in the conference, with their next closest pursuers, Purdue and Illinois, far behind with Big Ten records of 4-6. That bodes well for the Gophers’ chances at an NCAA berth.
Since the NCAA tournament expanded from 32 to 48 teams in 1993, the Big Ten has sent either five or six teams to the tournament. Right now, the Gophers are the fifth team in the conference, but the gap between them and the second tier is an important ally.
“If that separation maintains itself through the second half of the season,” coach Mike Hebert said, “I would join those who would talk about us as an NCAA berth candidate.”
This weekend starts a four-match homestand for the Gophers, and if they want to keep their post-season chances looking rosy, they need to take advantage of this scheduling quirk. Their last three matches are against No. 5 Michigan State, No. 6 Penn State, and No. 15 Ohio State.
“It’s too early to say a sweep is a must,” Hebert said. “But with the finish we have, it’s much more advantageous if we win now.”
Along with the usual pre-match preparation and the post-season concerns, Hebert and the Gophers have another issue to deal with. For the second time this year they face Illinois, the team Hebert coached for 13 years. Luckily, the tougher of the two meetings already took place on Oct. 5, when Hebert returned to Champaign, Ill.
Minnesota won that match in four games, one that Hebert knew was big. Friday’s match brings the Illinois-Minnesota rivalry closer to normalcy.
“I don’t suppose it’ll be an ordinary match until the players I recruited have graduated,” Hebert said. “But at the same time it’s not like an emotional hand grenade being lobbed in front of us or anything.”
Kelly Scherr, Illinois’ lone senior, said the Illini aren’t mad at Hebert for leaving, and they’re concentrating only on the match, not the backdrop of it.
“It was hard when we first found out Mike was leaving,” she said. “We liked him a lot, and he taught us a lot. But we also knew we had to focus on the future. We have a good direction now. We have a real young team, but we’ve shown a lot of improvement already.”
Still, there’s a special motivational spark somewhere deep in both teams. Illinois wants to show Hebert they can win without him, and Minnesota wants to show how much they’ve improved and that Hebert made the right decision.
“We have what was once theirs,” Pearman said. “They’re going to want to beat us more than probably any other team. And we have a lot to prove to them, too.”