Reflecting upon the Gophers home sweep of Northwestern on Friday and Indiana on Saturday, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert simply smiled.
It was more than a smile of relief, although the 25th-ranked Gophers snapped a three-game losing streak. It was also a grin of bewilderment that three freshmen — setter Lindsey Berg, defensive specialist Ali Berres, middle blocker Stephanie Hagen — were responsible for preventing the Gophers from tumbling downward in conference standings.
Of the three, Berg was the most impressive, pulling the Gophers through the most crucial moments of each match. Over the weekend, the setter recorded six service aces, 11 digs and on Saturday a .750 hitting percentage.
“Lindsey Berg had just an outstanding weekend serving, setting and just running the team,” Hebert said. “It was her best weekend as a Gopher.”
During the final points of each match’s game one, the momentum favored the opposing team. But Berg’s jump serve baffled the team across the net.
Tied at 13 against Northwestern, Berg calmly took her place behind the service line and nailed two consecutive service aces that helped snap Minnesota’s nine-game losing streak.
The freshman faced similar pressure on Saturday. Confronted with a one point deficit at 12-13, Berg again delivered two consecutive service aces. Minnesota won that game 15-13.
“It’s kind of phenomenal that we have a freshman out there delivering the knockout punch at 13-all both nights,” Hebert said.
Not only did Berg explode from behind the service line, but the setter also powered some key attacks for Minnesota. On Saturday, Berg recorded six kills and no errors against a respectable Indiana block.
“It was like they couldn’t pick up my tip,” Berg said. “And if they aren’t going to pick on it, why stop?”
The “field general,” as Hebert refers to Berg, has proven to be clear-minded during competition. And it’s this ability, Hebert said, that’s shaped the freshman into a leader on the court.
“Right now Berg’s the player who’s emerging as one of the centers of our energy,” Hebert said. “Right now she is the player who makes us go.”
Likewise, the play of Berres boosted the Gophers to a 3-0 victory on Friday. After struggling though the team’s first 17 games, Berres battled through the Big Ten intimidation.
“I had a lot of first year-itis,” Berres said. “Mike would tell me to just relax, but I was uptight and nervous about making mistakes.”
Heading into the Northwestern match, the defensive specialist had only 50 digs. But on Friday, Berres looked to be in her prime, digging 12.
With her performance over the past two weekends, Hebert said Berres has emerged as the team’s top defensive specialist.
“She dug some straight down rips (on Friday) that some people just don’t dig,” Hebert said. “I attribute that to her very quick maturation as a person more than anything else.”
Like Berres, Hagen has matured into a dependable middle blocker. The freshman recorded a .462 hitting percentage on Friday while leading the Gophers with .800 hitting percentage on Saturday.
Not only did the freshman bring a vicious attack game to the court on both nights, but she also supported the Gophers with relentless defense. Hagen had seven block assists over the weekend.
“This weekend Stephanie Hagen was a force that came alive for us,” Hebert said.
Berg, Berres and Hagen were young players who displayed veteran-like skills in the Big Ten. Over time, Hebert expects this weekend to be considered typical for the freshmen.
“People who are that determined,” Hebert said. “Some day it pays off for them.”