Spikers not content just to play in NCAA tourney this weekend

by Brian Hall

After logging consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances, Minnesota’s volleyball team is attempting to move forward this season despite a youthful cast.

Loaded with talent and experience during the past two seasons, the Gophers must rely on a regular rotation of six underclassmen and only three seniors.

Minnesota plays in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday against DePaul. Host Northern Iowa plays in the second game of the night against Northern Illinois, with the two winners facing each other Saturday.

The new faces must adjust quickly to the level of play, or the Gophers will be sent home early. Only one Big Ten team has lost in the opening round since 1996.

“It shouldn’t be a problem because the intensity in the conference matches is very similar, sometimes greater than those in the tournament,” senior Lindsey Berg said after the Gophers loss to Penn State last Saturday.

Seniors Kathy Tilson, Stephanie Hagen and Berg will each be making their third trip to the tournament.

Tilson was a member of two NCAA teams at the University of Texas.

“Steph, Kathy and I are never going to give up,” Berg said. “If we lose we are done. But, I don’t think anyone on the team will have any different feelings.

“This team is pretty intelligent about those types of things. They know how we feel. I am not worried about their attitudes.”

To overcome the elite teams in the tournament, the Gophers must solve their season-long Achilles heel ñ the passing game.

Minnesota has committed 194 service return errors and 35 ball handling errors this season.

Even Berg, the all-conference setter, recorded a career-low 1,200 assists this season, due mainly to breakdowns in the passing game.

“I really believe the ability of our opponents to serve, the level of their serving, is going to determine to a large extent how successful we are going to be in the tournament,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said.

Friday’s opponent, the Demons (24-8) have recorded 158 aces this season, an average of 1.3 per game.

Gopher opponents have averaged 1.8 per game.

“Our serving game has gotten a lot a better as the season has progressed,” DePaul coach Dawn Dockstader said. “The rally scoring and the let serve has allowed teams to be more aggressive serving and I think we have taken advantage of that.”

As Hebert points out, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Statistics must be put into context, but the coach has little to work with.

The only common opponent between the schools is Illinois. The Demons lost to the Illini while the Gophers split the season series against Illinois.

“That’s what has us bamboozled at this point,” Hebert said. “We are not quite sure what level to expect from DePaul. You watch tape and see two teams battle very competitively but you don’t know what skill level they are playing at.”

DePaul recorded 427 more kills this season than Minnesota, but hit .247 compared to the Gophers .273 hitting percentage.

The Demons are led by all-conference outside hitter Stephanie Bishop who averaged 3.94 kills per game while only hitting .195.

“They play a very scrappy tenacious defensive style,” Hebert said. “Just the kind of match up we don’t want. We are more of a power team. We have trouble with teams like that.”

DePaul, in only its second trip to the postseason, has made an impressive turnaround under its fifth year coach. The Demons won only four games the season before Dockstader’s arrival, but have now posted three consecutive 20-win seasons.

The Demons entered the Conference USA tournament as a fifth seed, but knocked off fourth seed Houston, top seed Cincinnati and second seed Louisville to take the crown and earn an automatic NCAA bid.

“My team absolutely deserves to be where they are,” Dockstader said. “Although we are excited to be here we also want to win and I expect my team to keep that attitude whenever they step on the court. We are not just happy with being there.”

Neither is Minnesota’s trio of seniors.

Brian Hall covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]