Freshmen wait in wings, test patience

The Gophers have four freshmen on their 2011 roster, but only Kellie McNeil has seen significant playing time.

by Charlie Armitz

For freshmen on the 2011 Gophers volleyball team, patience is more than a virtue.

ItâÄôs a means of survival.

Minnesota, the No. 10 team in the nation, has four freshmen listed on its roster: Kellie McNeil, Morgan Bohl, Juliane Daugaard and Caitlin Roberts.

Out of those four, only McNeil has seen significant playing time through 11 matches in 2011.

At first glance, it would seem to indicate a tendency by the GophersâÄô coaching staff to favor experienced players.

 However, a closer look reveals a unique case behind each freshmanâÄôs absence.

Daugaard, a 6-foot-2-inch middle blocker from Denmark, signed to play for Minnesota in November 2010, but the NCAA deemed her as a partial qualifier âÄî a status awarded because of academic ineligibility âÄî for the 2011 season.

Partial qualifiers are allowed to practice, but cannot compete or travel with the team. Daugaard will be fully eligible to compete in 2012 as a redshirt freshman with three years of eligibility remaining. She can qualify for a fourth if she receives her degree.

Bohl, a 6-foot utility player with a skill set similar to GophersâÄô senior Hailey Cowles, is out indefinitely with a left knee injury that she sustained during her senior year of high school.

While BohlâÄôs timetable for return is uncertain, itâÄôs likely sheâÄôll redshirt the 2011 season.

Roberts, a defensive specialist who joined the team as a walk-on, is the only freshman besides McNeil to have seen court time in 2011. She subbed in to serve once against Oregon on Aug. 27.

For a Minnesota squad looking to make noise at the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive year, the situation is limiting âÄî but not crippling.

âÄúI donâÄôt think any top program wants freshmen carrying the load for them,âÄù Gophers interim head coach Laura Bush said. âÄúYouâÄôre hoping that your experienced players are the ones on the court. If you do have a freshman on the court, itâÄôs maybe one.âÄù

One freshman is exactly what Minnesota has in McNeil âÄî the nationâÄôs eighth-ranked prospect out of high school and the top-ranked setter in her class.

A four-time all-conference honoree at Lakeville North High School, McNeil has trained as both an outside hitter and a setter during the 2011 season. She subbed in as an outside hitter in four nonconference matches, posting five kills while hitting .211.

âÄú[McNeil] has been a pretty versatile player for us this year,âÄù assistant coach Alfee Reft said. âÄúWe have little depth in a lot of positions, so sheâÄôs been blocking, hitting and filling any role that we feel she can contribute to the team other than setting.âÄù

In her most recent match against Northwestern, however, McNeil replaced starting setter Mia Tabberson to begin the second set and tallied her first 33 assists as a Gopher.

Minnesota defeated the Wildcats largely because of McNeilâÄôs impact as a blocker, as well as her improved setting in the third and fourth sets.

âÄúShe did a nice job setting the team,âÄù Reft said. âÄúShe was able to jump in there after not setting as many reps for the hitters in the last couple weeks.âÄù

 McNeil is also the only freshman to have joined the team early. She graduated from Lakeville North in December 2010 after leading her team to a state title and then came to the Gophers in time for their spring tournament schedule âÄî just as sophomore Ashley Wittman did in 2010.

âÄúComing in early prepared me a lot for this fall season,âÄù McNeil said. âÄúIf I hadnâÄôt come in early, I donâÄôt think I would have gotten much playing time at all.âÄù

McNeil said she didnâÄôt know what to expect coming into the fall, but is happy with her playing time at the moment.

For her, being a freshman is about learning, which starts by making the most of her time on the court.

âÄúSometimes itâÄôs hard to tell how to play on the court [when IâÄôm not playing] because IâÄôm not out there and I canâÄôt see whatâÄôs going on in the huddles,âÄù McNeil said.

McNeilâÄôs classmates can sympathize with her in that regard. For them, the learning process is made easier by their ability to share it with McNeil on and off the court.

McNeil, Daugaard, and Bohl room together and have grown close early in the season.

âÄúWeâÄôre like a little family inside of the bigger family on the team,âÄù Bohl said. âÄúWe are there for each other whenever we need to talk.âÄù

That kind of chemistry appeared to be missing from the Minnesota squads of 2008-2010, which were gifted with game-ready talent but riddled with turmoil.

âÄúI think itâÄôs easy for freshmen to connect with each other because weâÄôre all new. If one person doesnâÄôt understand something, weâÄôll help each other out,âÄù McNeil said.