While the 1997 Minnesota volleyball season might best be described as four head-spinning months of extremes, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament left the Gophers on the upswing.
After tying for fifth place in the Big Ten, Minnesota earned a bid to compete in Provo, Utah, on Dec. 5 against Miami of Ohio in the first round of the NCAAs. In doing so, the Gophers achieved their season-long goal of competing for a second straight year at the national tournament.
Surrounded by a maroon-and-gold entourage of more than 100 Minnesota supporters, the Gophers downed Miami of Ohio in straight sets by scores of 16-14, 15-5 and 15-12. Junior Linda Shudlick effectively led the Gophers’ attack, recording a career-high 18 kills with only one error. She also put up big numbers on defense, scooping up 14 digs and stuffing three blocks. Freshman Nicole Branagh followed, totaling 17 kills and 12 digs on the match.
With the win the Gophers advanced to the second round, where they met what turned out to be their final opponent of the year in sixth-ranked Brigham Young University. The Cougars’ solid hitting and blocking game proved too strong, and this time the Gophers fell in three sets by scores of 15-9, 15-8 and 15-11.
Minnesota finished the season with a 23-10 overall record.
Four seniors capped off their college volleyball careers at the NCAA tournament. Co-captains Becky Bauer and Sarah Pearman as well as Becky Jakala and Jane Passer played their last match with the Gophers against Brigham Young.
Not a rookie anymore
In addition to being named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention for her powerful hitting during the regular season, freshman Nicole Branagh earned kudos from Gophers coach Mike Hebert following the Gophers’ first-round game against Miami of Ohio.
“It’s extraordinary for any player, much less a freshman, to come into a pressure NCAA situation and perform as well as Nicole did against Miami. From her offensive attack to her defense to her serving game, she had an excellent match overall.”
Minnesota has been chosen to participate at the NCAA tournament as an “at-large” bid for two straight years. While it might seem like the Gophers are becoming tournament regulars, Hebert said that with each passing year admission gets more and more difficult.
“Qualifying for the NCAA tournament is a very difficult proposition,” Hebert said. “It was this year, the year before, and it’s getting tougher every year.” Hebert would know — he’s coached 13 straight NCAA qualifying teams to date, the first 11 as head coach at Illinois and two after coming to Minnesota.
Although Bauer — a four-year starting setter — has ended her career with the Gophers, chances are it won’t be easily forgotten. Completing her career with 5,918 assists, Bauer earned the second-most career assists in Minnesota and Big Ten history. She also currently places eighth on the all-time NCAA career assist list. Following the conference season, Bauer was named to the All-Big Ten first team.
Stanford captured a record fourth NCAA title in six years at this year’s national tournament. On Dec. 20, in Spokane, Wash., the No. 1 Cardinal defeated No. 2 Penn State in five games to claim the crown. With the victory, Stanford became only the fourth team to win back-to-back titles in NCAA volleyball history.