Gentil leads a Gophers defense that is setting benchmarks for future teams to shoot for

Kent Erdahl

Of all the statistical categories in volleyball, the dig is likely the most unglamorous.

That’s because a great dig can almost be hard to watch.

Good defensive players often look as if they’re asking for injury by standing in the way of a blistering kill, but the good ones keep the ball alive by putting themselves in harm’s way and popping the ball right back up into the air.

Pretty or not, when the Gophers took on Michigan State and Michigan over the weekend, they showed just how valuable the dig can be.

Minnesota’s trio of Paula Gentil, Lisa Reinhart and Marci Peniata visibly frustrated the Spartans’ attack Friday while seamlessly setting up the Gophers’ offense.

There were several times when the Spartan hitters slammed the ball toward the Minnesota back row with a scream, but the crowd in the Sports Pavilion responded with “oohs” after witnessing the lunging Gophers absorb shot after shot.

In the end, Minnesota out-dug the Spartans 55-37. But the most startling statistic revealed the source of Michigan State’s frustration. The Spartans had a minus .024 hitting percentage.

As impressive as Friday’s showing was, Minnesota’s defense played even better against Michigan on Saturday.

The Wolverines also relied on a great defense. So, as one might expect, the game featured some extremely long volleys and many diving bodies.

“It felt like a five-game match, because you would just play the one rally over and over again,” said Kelly Bowman, who recorded 12 digs. “I would just think, ‘Somebody please just end this play.’ “

Despite lasting only three games, the match took more than an hour and a half, and when the ball finally hit the ground for the last time, Minnesota had a three-game school record of 96 digs.

Though impressive, the team mark was hardly the most impressive record that fell. Gentil showed why she was the only libero to earn All-America honors in the last two seasons by breaking her own school digs record with 39.

The new record is for any match, including four- and five-game matches. Gentil’s previous record of 33 came in four games against Penn State. Her average of 13 digs a game Saturday was even a bit unbelievable for Gentil herself.

“I was surprised when I saw (the stats). I was like, ‘What? This isn’t right,’ ” she said. “(Michigan) only really had one shot open and me and (Peniata) or me and (Reinhart) were there all the time and picking it up.”

Michigan pelted Minnesota’s right side with shot after shot, but Gentil and her counterparts rarely missed a beat, holding the Wolverines to a .062 hitting percentage.

The Gophers also prevented the Wolverines from recording a single ace, a feat that has become a constant for the team.

Coach Mike Hebert continually refers to Minnesota’s defense as the signature of the team. But even he was surprised by how much Gentil shined Saturday, he said.

“I told Paula during the match that I thought she was having an outstanding night,” Hebert said. “She was in the zone digging everything. The whole team was playing well, but Paula was that much better.

” ‘Extraordinary’ is a good word for it.”