Spikers serve notice against top teams

Ben Goessling

Stanford volleyball coach John Dunning walked into the pressroom following his squad’s win in the State Farm Volleyball Classic championship match on Saturday night and immediately asked for a bottle of water.

“I don’t think there’s a drop of water left in my body,” Dunning said.

While Dunning’s dehydration came primarily from the sweltering temperature inside the Sports Pavilion, his team sweat out a fierce challenge from a Minnesota team expected to be an afterthought.

In a field with the top-ranked and defending national champion Cardinal as well as eighth-ranked Pepperdine and No. 14 Northern Iowa, the unranked Gophers advanced to Saturday’s championship with a stunning three-game victory over Pepperdine on Friday night.

On Saturday, the Gophers (1-1) came inches away from taking a commanding two-games-to-one lead over Stanford in the match before falling in four games (30-21, 24-30, 30-27, 30-21).

“It’s not often you give Stanford concern,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “We were the young team here, but we were able to come back and be aggressive.”

Following a loss in the first game, Minnesota led most of the second and extended its margin as far as 24-13. The Gophers held on for a 30-24 win which kept the Sports Pavilion crowd of 1,800 on its feet for much of the game.

Down 19-14 in the third game, Minnesota won 10 of the next 13 points en route to a 24-22 lead. The Gophers led 26-24, but Stanford’s Ogonna Nnamani, who was named to the all-tournament team, recorded three kills and a block in a rally that seemed to drain the energy out of Minnesota’s vibrant bunch.

After winning the third game, the Cardinal (2-0) hit .410 in game four and were never threatened in a 30-21 victory to clinch the match.

But Hebert still left the tournament speaking volumes of his players.

“I’m as proud of our team tonight as last night (when Minnesota defeated Pepperdine),” Hebert said Saturday. “We served notice we belong in this tournament.”

The Gophers were picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten by conference coaches, a position Hebert said he was pleased with because of the anonymity it gave his young team.

Friday’s victory over the Waves, however, was about as big a statement Minnesota could make to the contrary.

Pepperdine was the highest-ranked team the Gophers defeated since a victory over eighth-ranked Ohio State on Sept. 28, 1996 – Hebert’s first season as coach.

The win over Pepperdine, combined with their strong performance against Stanford, brought the Gophers’ young stars some notoriety.

Junior opposite hitter Cassie Busse, sophomore setter Lindsey Vander Well and freshman libero Paula Gentil were named to the all-tournament team, and all three drew high praise from opposing coaches.

The libero, a defensive specialist who cannot serve or attack, is new to college volleyball this year, and Gentil quickly stole the show. She posted 36 digs in the tournament, and her numerous spectacular saves quickly made her a crowd favorite.

The Brazilian native and former soccer goalie even kicked a ball over the net to keep a point alive.

“It’s great to have Paula back there, because I know she’s going to get everything and I’m going to get a good pass,” Vander Well said.

Said Hebert, “I’m so glad everybody finally got to see (Gentil) play. She pulls people along with her, and she’s such a treasure.”

While treasure is not a word most would use to describe the Gophers this season, their play over the weekend might have unearthed a diamond in the rough.

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]