Gophers aim for Final Four, maybe more

Minnesota plays Long Island in the first round of the NCAA Tournament today.

Kent Erdahl

Shortly after Sunday’s selection show for the NCAA Volleyball Tournament, Minnesota’s players and coaches stopped worrying about having to travel for the first two rounds despite gaining a top regional seed.

Not that the fourth-seed Gophers had time to worry.

Today, just four days after the announcement, Minnesota plays Long Island in the tournament’s first round on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The match begins at 4:30 p.m. CST.

Because of today’s game, the Gophers had an hour and a half practice Monday, no practice because of traveling Tuesday and another NCAA-mandated hour and a half practice Wednesday to prepare for the Blackbirds.

In addition to their cramped preparation time, the Gophers face one of their most unfamiliar opponents ever.

Half of Long Island’s 12-person roster is composed of international players. The only state or country represented more than once on that lineup is Romania.

But despite any lack of preparation, Minnesota still remains the clear favorite to emerge from the first two rounds.

“We know that they’re going to be tough, because obviously they won their conference tournament,” setter Kelly Bowman said. “But as long as we play our game, we’ll be fine.”

Minnesota’s game revolves around defense, and that back-row dominance is the biggest reason why the Gophers are expected to win.

Big Ten defensive player of the year Paula Gentil said the defense, in particular, will be fine playing on short notice, because it doesn’t have a big problem with unfamiliar foes.

“For us (defenders), it’s a little bit easier, because our job involves more reading (on the court) than anything,” Gentil said. “There’s not much that we need to see on paper.”

The Gophers coaches are working to make sure the other parts of the team are well prepared, but coach Mike Hebert said he isn’t worried about their progress come game time.

Hebert said the team had yet to be intimidated by an opponent on the road this year and, after sweeping Illinois last weekend, the team is ready to play anyone, anywhere.

Whether the Gophers are affected by the quick road trip won’t be evident until this afternoon, but one thing remains certain: Hebert isn’t about to complain to the selection committee.

He pointed out that No. 3 Hawaii also has to travel, and it has much tougher matches. Besides, Hebert said, he’s never seen complaining to the committee pay off once.

“It’s fruitless. There’s no one to talk to. There’s this hovering cloud of a committee that makes these decisions,” Hebert said. “You can say, ‘OK that’s the hand we’re dealt. Let’s go play.’

“Or you can throw punches at that cloud, and you end up not hitting anything and getting yourself all riled up for nothing.”