Experience to be emphasized at NCAAs

Robert Mews

Minnesota’s volleyball team has relied on its young talent for most of this up-and-down season.

However, another NCAA Tournament is coming up for the Gophers and the team is looking to its three seniors for leadership that young talent can’t always bring.

Yet the senior class of Athena Mallakis, Jessica Byrnes and Paula Gentil isn’t just any average group of players. These seniors have steadily become the most successful class in Minnesota history.

Their 115 wins over the past four years are the most for any class of players to set foot on the Minnesota volleyball floor. The three have also been a part of the past two NCAA Final Fours.

That success is the reason coach Mike Hebert is looking to the seniors to take more leadership in NCAA Tournament play.

Hebert said come tournament time, there are “lots of reasons” for the team to let up, but he said that’s where the seniors come in to regroup the team.

“(The seniors) know this is the time you have to brace yourself, re-energize and head into the postseason with a fresh outlook,” Hebert said. “These voices in the locker room are very valuable right now.”

Byrnes said she knows the team can’t let up come tournament time and must take a fresh approach because everything is on the line.

“One thing I told the team yesterday… that we’re in the tournament and everybody’s record is 0-0 again,” Byrnes said.

However, Byrnes said she had to use history as a reminder to the team on how regular season success doesn’t always determine postseason success.

“We (seniors) know how to peak at tournament time,” Byrnes said. “It’s something that hopefully the seniors and the juniors that have been on the team can bring to the floor again.”

Part of the senior success has been the consistently solid play of libero Paula Gentil.

Gentil is a three-time All-American and last week became the first Minnesota volleyball player to be named First-Team All-Big Ten four years.

“I think Paula, and all the seniors included, really have pushed us to be

better players,” junior middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “I think watching the success that they’ve had as a class is something that everyone who follows them are going to strive for.”

All-Big Ten Gophers

Gentil was named to the First-Team All-Big Ten team Tuesday along with junior middle blocker Nelson.

The fourth for Gentil, this is the first time Nelson has earned such honors.

Big Ten coach, player, defensive player and freshman of the year were all earned by Penn State members.

It also marks the first time in her career that Gentil has not earned the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honor.

Lucia gets extension

Minnesota’s men’s hockey coach Don Lucia has signed a three-year contract extension, athletics director Joel Maturi announced Tuesday. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Lucia is now signed to coach the Gophers through the 2011-2012 season. His previous contract ran through the 2008-2009 season.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Maturi said the parties had been working on the extension since last spring and that the new deal was signed last week.

“I think Don is one of the premier coaches in the country,” Maturi said.

“We wanted to make certain this is where he will be, hopefully, for the rest of his career, but at least for the immediate future.”

Lucia came to Minnesota in 1999 and since then has compiled a 169-80-25 record. He also guided the Gophers to back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003 and another Frozen Four appearance last season.

“I’m grateful for the trust that Joel has put in me,” Lucia said in a statement released by the University. “There is nowhere else I’d rather be coaching than here at the University of Minnesota. I’m looking forward to my next seven years as head coach of the Golden Gophers.”

Chris Lempesis contributed to this report.