Berg-to-Branagh leads U volleyball’s mission

Nick Doty

In a polite, confident tone that is typical of Mike Hebert, the third-year Gophers volleyball coach described what his team must do to be successful this year.
“We found we needed to get our act together after last year’s season.”
The Gophers finished a disappointing eighth in the Big Ten last year, compiling a 7-13 conference record and 17-14 overall record. Hebert’s team seemed to get worse as the season progressed, and for the first time since 1984 a Mike Hebert-coached team missed the NCAA tournament cut.
After Hebert saw his Gophers advance to the second round of the NCAAs in each of his first two seasons as Minnesota’s coach, he has every reason, it seems, to be bitter about last year.
But he’s not; that’s not how Coach Hebert operates.
Hebert had nothing but excitement and kind words about his 1999 squad at Friday’s media luncheon at the Sports Pavilion. He’s so excited, in fact, that he invited all media members to participate in a routine practice with the players.
“This is the best team that I’ve had since I’ve been at Minnesota,” said Hebert. “We’ve managed to sweep up some of the debris that was left over when I got here. Now’s the time when we’re ready to take off.”
The Gophers gave a glimpse of their much-improved team this spring when they won five of six matches against several top 25 teams.
Hebert credits a much-increased athletic ability among his players and their hard work in the weight-room during the off-season for its added punch. He pointed out that many players like sophomore outside hitter Yvonne Wichert of Germany added several inches to their vertical jump.
As the team prepares to open its season today against St. Mary’s College in California its added strength — even more-so than its increased athleticism — is its cohesiveness and team resolve, Hebert said.
“Just being together another year, with this group, it’s really exciting,” said sophomore setter Lindsey Berg.
Berg, a Honolulu native, returns as the starting setter to quarterback the Gophers this fall. She will receive a homecoming this weekend when the team travels to Hawaii for a tournament against national powers UCLA, Hawaii and Pittsburgh.
In the 12 years prior to Berg’s convincing arrival last year the Gophers volleyball program has had just three players (Sharon Oesterling, Sue Jackson, Becky Bauer) occupy the setter position. Each garnered first-team All-Big Ten honors during their four-year careers. Hebert said he expects Berg to keep the tradition going.
But he also isn’t hesitant to say that Berg, who led the Big Ten in service aces last season as a freshman, and senior Susan Shudlick are the best tandem of setters he’s worked with in 24 years of coaching. Shudlick, who is one of Hebert’s most versatile players, has more experience than any other player with 88 matches under her belt.
At the outside hitter position — a.k.a. the left side — the Gophers return one of the most highly touted players in the nation in junior Nicole Branagh. Branagh will also enjoy a homecoming this week when the team stops at St. Mary’s College, which is five minutes from her native Orinda, Calif.
Branagh enters her third season 11th on the school’s all-time career kills list with 1,057. She is on track to break Katrian DeDecker’s school and conference records for career kills next year. The 6-foot 1-inch leaper was an all-district selection in 1998 and one of only three players to earn unanimous All-Big Ten honors on the 1999 preseason team. She also finished fifth nationally in 1998 with 5.51 kills per game.
Wichert, who was second on the team in kills last year, will also see a lot of action at outside hitter. Wichert can easily touch a basketball hoop and is one of the team’s most explosive players.
Junior Lisa Aschenbrenner (Algonquin, Ill.), whom Hebert called a “nice surprise” this season, will split time with last year’s high school Minnesota Ms. Volleyball Lisa Axel (Buffalo) and Susan Shudlick.
At right side, Hebert will have to replace the loss of mainstay Sonja Posthuma, who graduated. The position is up for grabs, though Aschenbrenner has the most experience there. Susan Shudlick and newcomer Shelmadine Cacho of Belize are also solid options here.
The middle hitter position is expected to bring some relief to Hebert this year. Gophers fifth-year senior Linda Shudlick (Apple Valley) is back after missing all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. The 6-1 Shudlick had her third knee surgery in spring 1998.
“I feel very strong,” said Linda Shudlick. “Whatever they need me for that’s where I’ll be.”
“We finally have depth in the middle,” Hebert said. “We have five people that can play that position. (Sophomore Stephanie) Hagen has undergone a transformation from a good player to an extremely good player. A lot of people will be surprised.”
The 6-3 Hagen from Minnetonka will battle with junior Heather Baxter (Aurora, Ill.) and star junior college transfer Charnette Fair of Huntington Beach, Calif.
As for a defensive specialist Susan Shudlick will spend time here, too. Hebert has also been impressed with Axel’s ball control. Sophomore Ali Berres (Naperville, Ill.) is the leading candidate to see playing time along with senior Heather Swenson of Brooklyn Park.
“I like us in all positions,” Hebert said. “The biggest question mark is on the right side because no one has really played that position before.”
Although the Gophers may be much better from just a year ago, their improvement in the Big Ten might prove difficult to come by in the Big Ten, which for the last three years was ranked the toughest conference in the NCAA.
“It’s difficult to measure the progress of a team nationally because in the Big Ten the effort to climb the rungs of the ladder is slow-going because of the quality of the conference,” Hebert said.
No. 1-ranked Penn State will be the main reason this Gophers’ season is slow-going. But Branagh said her team feels confident facing the likes of the powerhouse Nittany Lions and Wisconsin.
“Anyone can beat anyone on a given night (in the Big Ten),” she said.
“Be prepared for something special to happen this year,” Hebert said.