U volleyball finds recipe for success

Tim Klobuchar

Midterms and the mid-point of the Big Ten volleyball season converge this week, making this an appropriate time to conduct a different examination.
The Gophers were picked to finish eighth by conference coaches before the season, which is exactly where they finished last year. But Minnesota has been the surprise team of the Big Ten, and with its 16-7 record, it has a legitimate shot at the 48-team NCAA tournament.
So here’s the stumper: What happened to the Gophers this year that’s made them a sudden contender? Well, as on any test, when in doubt, answer “C” — as in coaching, chemistry, and character. Those are the ingredients to virtually every successful team.
They’re also elements that were absent last year, making this season even more surprising. So here are the three “C’s” that have been way above average this year.
Mike Hebert sat in the bleachers at the Sports Pavilion on Tuesday, preparing to talk to a reporter but still keeping a vigilant eye on his team’s practice, which had begun without him.
“One second here,” Hebert said, opening a green book marked “Lab Book” on the cover. Sure enough, the inside contained graph paper. The page that Hebert turned to contained the schedule for the day’s practice, written in pencil. He looked down at the page, then up at his team on the court.
“I just want to see what the order was,” Hebert said, referring to the drills the Gophers were doing. His mind at ease, Hebert resumed the interview.
This is Hebert’s first season as the Gophers’ coach after 13 successful ones at Illinois, the last 11 of which resulted in NCAA tournament appearances. He built the Illini from the ground up, and though Minnesota wasn’t in need of total rebuilding when he took over, Hebert still had what he called “re-piecing.”
The Gophers endured the firing of popular coach Stephanie Schleuder after the 1994 season and a poor 13-17 finish last year under interim coach Pam Miller-Dombeck. Now, with a proven winner providing stability at the top, Minnesota has made a quick emergence from the depths of the Big Ten.
Befitting of a coach who carries a lab book, Hebert thinks there is a formula to building a successful program anywhere, though he doesn’t think it’s too complicated.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “It is a formula. You come in and teach fundamentals, you insist on a disciplined environment, you create a positive learning environment so the people enjoy the learning process. But you’re demanding and unswerving in what you’re asking for.”
Hebert’s practices include drills that simulate actual competition, and they’re done until they’re as close to perfection as possible. Hebert likened it to a mathematical equation: repetition in practice equalling replication in a match.
“He’s trained us,” Gophers junior Sarah Pearman said. “We’re still learning new things. There’s still so much we have to learn. His focus is on discipline, and that’s what we needed. We had the physical talent and athletic ability, but mentally and technically we weren’t very good until he got here.”
When the Gophers found out about their predicted Big Ten fate, they didn’t exactly take it hard.
“We all knew better,” said junior setter Becky Bauer. “We all kind of chuckled.”
Over half the team remains from two years ago, when Minnesota’s troubles began. The players, some of whom considered transferring after Schleuder was fired, have been resilient, sticking with the program through turbulent times.
They’ve said they knew they had the ability to make this year special — no small task considering their thin roster of 11 players. But they’ve been able to maximize their talent, which includes stars such as Bauer and two-time All-Big Ten outside hitter Katrien DeDecker.
The Gophers have also fought off injuries, both nagging and career-threatening. Pearman (knee), Tara Baynes (post-concussion syndrome and back), and Bauer (knee) are still battling through aches and pains. The combination of injuries and a small roster could be potential disaster for the team.
Instead, the Gophers have been able to shove those problems aside and work harder than they ever have — and enjoy it.
“(Hebert) has brought out a lot of character,” Bauer said. “Our effort level has gone up amazingly.”
Oddly enough, team chemistry is one area that Hebert’s formula doesn’t apply. In fact, he hasn’t even been a catalyst. It’s something intangible that’s there one year, then gone the next because of different players or different circumstances. This year, the good rapport among teammates is finally in full view.
“We haven’t had to have any heart-to-heart team meetings this year,” Bauer said with a laugh. “Whereas in the past we’ve had people not getting along or griping at each other on the court.”
Because of what many of the players went through together the last few years, they’ve developed a mutual bond.
“That adversity brought us really close together,” Pearman said. “Personality-wise, we play off each other. There aren’t any individuals out there. It’s a certain characteristic the whole team has come under.”
Hebert’s formula and equation for building success have been true thus far, but team chemistry is just one of many things about the Gophers’ season that has been unpredictable.