Heading into Sweet 16, freshmen not looking like rookies

by Lindsay Guentzel

When the Gophers started playing in August, all eyes were on freshman Ashley Wittman. Named the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior at Shakopee High School, Wittman finished her high school career by leading the Sabers to their third consecutive state championship before graduating early and joining the Gophers last spring. âÄúPeople were expecting me to do a lot and to be great and I have the same expectations for myself,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúAt times, IâÄôm sure, it got to my mind and made me a little nervous, but having that makes me want to play even more and play even better for everyone, to show what I have and what I can bring to the table.âÄù During pre-season camp, Wittman earned a starting spot and wasted no time justifying the hype. She was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Aug. 30, two days after the Gophers swept the Golden Gopher Invite, a three-match tournament where the outside hitter racked up 38 kills, 26 digs and seven blocks. While her drive and on-the-court talent made her the most notable addition to the young GophersâÄô roster, she wasnâÄôt the only freshman to burst out of the gate. Freshman Tori Dixon, an accomplished middle hitter from Burnsville High School, found herself taking on the challenge of a new position after senior Hailey Cowles, an outside hitter, tore her ACL during pre-season camp. Luckily for the Gophers, Dixon flourished in her new role, collecting 29 kills, seven digs and eight blocks in her first match at the Golden Gopher Invite. But her move to outside hitter wasnâÄôt permanent. Dixon has had to play three different positions this season, most recently sharing the role of middle hitter with senior Lauren Gibbemeyer. âÄúJust being able to step in as a freshman and play almost every game of the season, itâÄôs what I wanted to do,âÄù Dixon said. âÄúWeâÄôve had a lot of random, little things going on within our team, but weâÄôve definitely gotten over them and I think weâÄôve grown from it.âÄù DixonâÄôs flexibility has helped smooth those unexpected bumps. She notched 20 kills, eight digs and five blocks âÄî including a 10-point serving streak âÄî as the middle hitter in the GophersâÄô victories over North Dakota State and Creighton this weekend, helping them advance to the Sweet 16 in Seattle. The impact of the freshman class has extended beyond the front row, too. Defensive specialist Steffi Sooter has made her presence known, playing in the back row alongside junior libero Jessica Granquist for most of the season. âÄúItâÄôs made me a more mature player, and itâÄôs definitely giving me a compliment in a way, because I know most freshmen donâÄôt take on a role that we take on,âÄù Sooter said. âÄúAs a freshman, IâÄôve really enjoyed my experience. Normally itâÄôs hard for freshmen, the transition. But itâÄôs been really fun and easy for me.âÄù That transition was also easier because all three freshmen knew each other before coming to Minnesota âÄî Wittman and Dixon played against each other in high school, and all three competed in the same club circuit. âÄúItâÄôs a lot smoother of a transition coming in and knowing people,âÄù Dixon said. âÄúIt was an advantage for the freshmen, getting to play with each other before.âÄù With only one senior on the squad, the three freshmen have added a substantial amount of depth to a bench that has been pounded this season. Five players, including Sooter, missed playing time due to injuries. âÄúWe have three players who are freshmen who arenâÄôt playing like freshmen right now, they are playing like veterans,âÄù head coach Mike Hebert said. âÄúI would rate them as good, good and really good.âÄù The success of his youngest players hasnâÄôt surprised Hebert, who acknowledged their performances after the GophersâÄô back-to-back sweeps this weekend. âÄúTori Dixon is not a freshman, her transcript may say that but sheâÄôs playing an awful lot more mature volleyball than that,âÄù Hebert said. âÄúAshley Wittman is a big-time volleyball player. Steffi Sooter, same thing. WeâÄôre asking her to pass and play some defense. ItâÄôs a lot to ask of a young kid. SheâÄôs doing a real solid job.âÄù For the No. 10-seed Gophers, the freshmenâÄôs first-year careers have come full circle at the right time. The Gophers take on No. 7 seed California on Friday in the third round of the NCAA tournament. âÄúWe have to deal with their fabulous All-American Tarah Murrey,âÄù Hebert said. âÄúSheâÄôs an outside hitter that just bombs the ball. We have to figure out a way to slow that down.âÄù He added: âÄúWe have to play great defense, the kind of defense we played against Penn State, Illinois.âÄù While the Golden Bears are both ranked and seeded higher than the Gophers, Hebert was quick to point out that itâÄôs âÄújust a number.âÄù âÄúMost people expect Cal to beat us,âÄù he said. âÄúWe are considered the outsider of the group, and thatâÄôs good for us. We play much better from the chase position, or the underdog position, than we do when we are favored.âÄù