Minnesota looking for cohesiveness in Kansas

Minnesota took top-ranked Nebraska to the brink Monday before losing.

David McCoy

As a squad in which exactly half of the players are brand new, Minnesota’s volleyball team has some serious gelling to do.

The Gophers have their way of doing that – playing the No. 1 ranked team in the country. They lost to top-ranked Nebraska on Monday at the Sports Pavilion, coming up short in a tough five-game match after rebounding from a 2-0 deficit.

And as far as coach Mike Hebert is concerned, there wasn’t a better way to get his motley crew to start making music together.

“It was a perfect situation as it unfolded,” Hebert said. “In the first two games, we learned we could play competitively; games 3 and 4 gave us further confidence and to lose in five – it left us a little hungry. I couldn’t have written a better script.”

For each of the past four years, the Gophers have played a team ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 early in the season.

Last year, Minnesota lost in five games to No. 1 Southern California in its second match of the year. In 2003, the Gophers were swept by No. 2 Hawaii in the first match of the year and in 2002, they lost in four games to top-ranked Stanford in their second match.

Those early-season losses have turned into late-season success for Minnesota in recent years, with a Big Ten Championship, a Final Four appearance and an NCAA Championship appearance.

Minnesota travels to the Kansas State Invitational this weekend, hoping to keep alive its streak of early season top-ranked trip-ups to season ending triumphs.

“I’m going to relate (the Nebraska match) a lot to our USC match last year,” middle blocker Jessy Jones said. “We did lose that match and then we took them at the Final Four.”

But the reality is, six seniors from last year’s team have now moved on, making eight of the 16 players on this year’s team brand new.

So not only did Minnesota’s ability to stick with the Cornhuskers show that they’ll still be competitive against the nation’s elite, but it showed the team’s ability to gel quickly – much more so than it would have against a weaker opponent.

“It pushes you a lot more and you have to really work within the system that we run in order to hang with a tough opponent,” middle blocker Jessica Byrnes said. “So I think it does help you gel more because it puts much more pressure on everyone to do the job you need to do.”

Although Hebert said he’s been impressed with the way the team has come together so far, he said Minnesota’s progress in that area has been somewhat hampered by the slow transition of transfer outside hitters Meghan Cumpston and Sarah Florian.

Cumpston’s availability to contribute was marred by an injury on the first day of practice, Aug. 12, but she’s ready now. Florian came in a week and a half late after transferring from Southern California and Hebert elected to sit her out of fairness to the rest of the team.

One thing that has made a big difference in the Gophers’ “gellability” has been the way each veteran took a new player under their wing to help them adjust, Byrnes said. She sponsored freshman Kelly Schmidt.

At this point in the season, Hebert said those are the most important things, not necessarily wins.

“We’re always in it to win,” Hebert said. “But at this point in the season, it is acceptable to me and the players to see matches like this as a barometer of where we stand. Now if you’re talking to me in the NCAA Tournament or something, I wouldn’t have the same answer.”