New volleyball coach takes to the court

Scott Bradley

Since beginning his coaching career 20 years ago, Mike Hebert has become as identifiable with Big Ten volleyball as Superman is with Metropolis.
Hebert, who was hired as the Gophers’ head volleyball coach in late December, has seen the sport grow from its infancy into the popular game it is today.
He made his mark at the University of Illinois, where in three years he saved the Illini from last place and guided them to first. Illinois compiled a 323-127 record under Hebert.
That was only the beginning. Hebert coached Illinois teams to four conference titles, 11 consecutive NCAA appearances and two NCAA semifinal berths. Two of those Illini teams had perfect 18-0 Big Ten records.
But Hebert, 51, may now have a task that only Superman himself could handle. Hebert came to Minnesota largely because of its commitment to women’s athletics — Minnesota and the University of Iowa are the only Big Ten schools to have separate men’s and women’s athletics departments — but commitment at the top hasn’t always translated to success on the court.
The Gophers (11-17 last season), experiencing their third coach in as many seasons, held their first team practice Friday at Sports Pavilion. Four players on the already-narrow roster are injured, making the latest coaching transition that much more difficult.
Sophomore Tara Baynes, junior Becky Bauer and seniors Michelle Miller and Tera Fiamengo are the injured Minnesota players. Perhaps the most serious injury is the one affecting Baynes, a middle blocker. Baynes is experiencing post-concussive syndrome, an illness that stems from a concussion she suffered during a spring practice match in April.
Hebert said he is cautiously optimistic Baynes will play when it begins the regular season Aug. 30 against San Diego, but a team trainer said she could miss the season.
Bauer (chronic tendinitis), Miller (lower back pain) and Fiamengo (stress fracture in foot) are expected to be ready for the season opener.
The upcoming season will be a difficult one for a Minnesota team plagued with injuries and a small roster. There are only 11 players on the Gophers squad this year, even though the NCAA allows programs to allocate 13 scholarships.
These circumstances have left Hebert uncertain about his team’s capabilities this year.
“I’ve never been in a situation like this before,” he said. “I’ve never had a roster this thin to start with. The problem with low numbers is not only that you lack players; it makes it harder to hold practice.”
Despite Hebert’s quiet and reserved demeanor, nothing is out of the question for the highly recognized coach. And with senior All-America candidate Katrien DeDecker on the roster, anything is possible for the Gophers.
The players are excited about Hebert’s arrival and are hoping for a strong season regardless of their wins-loss total. Junior hitter Sarah Pearman believes this year’s team, although small in numbers, will do well with Hebert as coach.
“This is all new,” she said. “He knows what we need to do to win.”
Whether Hebert can turn the Gophers into one of the premier programs in the country is yet to be answered. The level of competition in Big Ten women’s athletics has changed since Hebert built Illinois into a conference champion. Athletic departments throughout the years have budgeted more money into women’s sports, making programs more competitive conference-wide.
Illinois was one of the first programs in the Big Ten to commit itself to women’s athletics, which Hebert said helped him make Illinois a winner so quickly.
Minnesota has never won a Big Ten title in volleyball. And Hebert realizes accomplishing that feat won’t be as easy as changing into a magical red and blue cape.
“While there’s more to offer here, there’s more to overcome,” Hebert said. “We need more players, and we need more talent.”