A good offense can provide flair, loud cheers and gaudy statistics.
But it has often been said that defense wins championships.
For Minnesota’s 25th-ranked volleyball team, defense has been a huge part to its recent 6-0 run in the Big Ten.
“(Coach) Mike (Hebert) has an offensive-oriented mind,” associate head coach Brian Heffernan said. “Mine is defense.”
In discussing defense with Heffernan, one might think the focus of the conversation would be on Minnesota’s Paula Gentil, the 2002 Big Ten defensive player of the year.
Gentil is key to the Gophers’ defense; however, Heffernan chose to mention another player.
“The magic of how our team succeeds is Lisa Reinhart,” he said.
He said the White Bear Lake, Minn., native plays with a lot of will and sacrifice.
She has a “nose for the ball” and will dive all over the court to get it, he said. Reinhart’s playing style is contagious, he said.
She was also a big part of the team’s successful 2002 season.
Reinhart shelled out 244 digs last season.
This year, she has recorded 94 digs early in the Big Ten season.
Reinhart’s skills complement Gentil’s. Combined, the two have solid chemistry for Minnesota’s backcourt.
“Paula came to Minnesota well equipped with a tremendous ability to pass and play defense,” Hebert said.
The Fortaleza Ceara, Brazil, native used her defensive abilities to come up with 574 digs last season.
It took her 38 matches to compile this total. Currently, the junior libero has 326 digs. Gentil is a bit off last year’s pace, but she knows how to step up when needed.
Gentil has a 4.79 digs-per-game average. In a home match versus Illinois on Oct. 4, she recorded only nine digs through the team’s first three games, putting the Gophers up 2-1.
However, in game four she made contributions to the team’s match-clinching 30-21 victory by covering a lot of the court and picking up 10 digs.
Heffernan said he was happy about that performance and Gentil’s efforts this season.
Before that game, Heffernan teased the All-American: “My grandma can dig more balls than you.”
Of late, Gentil is showing how much she means to the team.
She led the team with 24 digs in a win at Ohio State last weekend. It was a match for which the team needed solid defense because of the team’s low .081 hitting percentage.
Then, after missing pregame warm-ups at Penn State with a leg injury, she started and performed well against the Lions.
The 5-foot-9-inch sophomore tallied 19 digs in Minnesota’s impressive three-game sweep of the 13th-ranked Lions.
Gentil sparks a Gophers defense that has helped keep the team balanced while its offense has struggled of late.
Offensively, Minnesota is only hitting at a .232 percentage (ninth in the Big Ten), while its defense is holding opponents to a meager .186 hitting percentage – currently third among Big Ten defenses.
Adding to the defensive numbers, the Gophers lead the Big Ten in digs (1,129) and are third in blocks, with 203.
Gentil ranks first in digs (326), while freshman Meredith Nelson leads her squad in blocks (97).
900 for Gentil
Gentil got her 900th dig last weekend and inched closer to taking over as the team’s career leader in the category.
The all-time career leader in digs in Gophers volleyball is Sharon Esterling with 1,291.
Success coming on road
The Gophers had a four-game road sweep in the last two weeks.
Minnesota took down former conference leader Penn State last Saturday, defeating the 13th-ranked Lions in straight sets.
The Gophers also defeated Ohio State, Iowa and neighboring rival No. 23 Wisconsin.
After a disappointing Big Ten road opener last month at Indiana and a loss the next day at Purdue, Minnesota has looked more poised facing opponents on the road.
Losing just one Big Ten road match last year, Minnesota is now 13-3 in its last 16 conference matches away from home.
Busse climbs record book
Senior All-American Cassie Busse had 15 kills in her team’s 30-26, 30-18, 30-21 drubbing of Penn State on Saturday.
A Minnesota native, the 6-foot-2-inch opposite hitter raised her career total to 1,207 – placing her at 10th place on the Gophers all-time kill list.