Long road, long matches, Long Beach

The Gophers go for a national title starting Thursday against Southern California.

by Kent Erdahl

If these Gophers feel fortunate, they’ll tell you this time it’s for another reason.

Minnesota’s volleyball team made off like Cinderella at last year’s NCAA regional in Long Beach, Calif., dancing past top regional seed Pepperdine and third-seeded Washington on the way to the Final Four.

At the time, the Gophers were just happy to be the first No. 4 regional seed to advance to the national semifinals. But undefeated Southern California was even happier to send them home.

This year, Minnesota players and coaches said they again feel fortunate to be back in Long Beach, playing Southern California in the first round of the Final Four on Thursday at approximately 9:30 p.m. CST.

And it’s not because the Gophers are back in Long Beach or back in the national semifinals, but because they get one more chance to take the throne from the defending champs.

“I don’t think we’re anxious – we just want to do it this time,” libero Paula Gentil said. “We think this time it’s more of an even match Ö we’re definitely prepared for it.”

These Gophers said they have reason to believe things will be different this time.

Southern California ruled college volleyball with an undefeated record last season and ended 2003 as repeat champs.

But the Trojans proved to be human this year, falling five times in 24 matches before earning the eighth seed in the tournament.

Minnesota came close to serving Southern California its first loss this season Aug. 28, taking the first two games from the Trojans during the National Association of Collegiate Women’s Athletics Administrators tournament Aug. 28 in Fort Collins, Colo.

But Southern California came back, and Minnesota lost in five games.

The loss was tough to take for some of the Gophers players, because the team lost senior outside hitter Trisha Bratford to a sprained ankle before the fifth game.

But fellow outside hitter Erin Martin told her teammates not to worry, because she knew they would play the Trojans again.

“Look at us. We’re seeing them again in the postseason,” Martin said Monday. “We knew we could play with them then, and we know that we can play with them now. We’re just excited to have another chance.”

Minnesota and Southern California have improved since their early-season encounter, but Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said he likes the Gophers’ chances in light of some of the differences between the teams.

The Trojans have always been much taller at the net – six players stand 6 feet 2 inches or taller. But after playing Minnesota, they brought in 6-foot-1-inch Sarah Florian to shore up their defense.

That shorter lineup, coupled with the health of Bratford, is encouraging to Hebert.

Another positive for the Gophers is the sudden emergence of Jessy Jones.

Despite seeing limited time during the weekend, it was the play of Jones in the final two games against Ohio State that helped spark Minnesota to a win.

“Jessy Jones will be utilized considerably in Long Beach. Her coming-out party Saturday night was a successful one,” Hebert said. “I didn’t know whether she could manage the pressure of that stage, but not only did she manage, she shined very brightly.”

Hebert said that at 6 feet 3 inches, Jones’ height and blocking ability should make a difference in the match.

Regardless of Jones’ impact, Martin said she doesn’t think Southern California’s size will matter in the end.

“They’ve got the two big middles and the two big left sides and stuff, but I don’t think it’s really going to come down to that,” Martin said. “We were able to compete with them in August, and there’s no doubt we’ll be able to compete with them on Thursday.”

Stanford vs. Washington

Before Minnesota and Southern California play Thursday, half of the national championship will already be decided.

Stanford and Washington face each other for the third time this season at 7:30 p.m. CST Thursday, having split in their first two contests.

The Pac-10 rivals also split with the Trojans, meaning the Pac-10 participants should be well-represented and well-balanced.

Gentil is player of week

CVU.com named Gentil its player of the week Tuesday for her 79-dig weekend in the Minneapolis regional.

Gentil recorded a second-highest career dig total with 41 against Georgia Tech and added 38 against Ohio State. She also tallied five assists and four service aces.