Big Ten season opens for Gophers volleyball team

Kristian Pope

There’s no hiding now. The Gophers volleyball team opens up its Big Ten season tonight and Coach Mike Hebert has two familiar foes to deal with in his first weekend.
“Anyone who sees that we’re going up against nationally ranked teams can see it’s a big weekend,” Hebert said.
Big it is. Penn State and Ohio State, ranked No. 2 and No. 8 respectively, enter the Sports Pavilion, with both games to be broadcast live on Midwest Sports Channel.
Hebert, the coach at Illinois for 13 years, is no stranger to the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes. Some of his biggest matches at Illinois were against these two teams, usually among the country’s best.
“I enjoy playing the top teams,” Hebert said. “There’s a spark, a rush. Hopefully I can communicate that to our players.”
Sure, Hebert has the big game experience in the Big Ten. He lived it, winning four conference titles since 1986. But Hebert said not to expect miracles with the ’96 Gophers.
“Coaches don’t play,” Hebert said. “There’s no shortcut (to winning). It’s unrealistic to think that just because I’m here we’ll win right away. It doesn’t work that way.”
But the Gophers (9-4) are playing inspired. Enthusiasm and energy seemed to have overcome Minnesota throughout the preseason. They almost beat No. 17 Georgia Tech two weeks ago, a sight which Hebert believes will be common this year.
“I’m confident we will upset somebody along the way,” Hebert said.
Will it happen this weekend? Maybe not. Even at home, this weekend may be Minnesota’s most difficult.
For a team rebuilding an identity, even the coach having all the experience in the world won’t change that.
Here’s a look into this weekend’s opponents:
ù Gophers vs. Penn State (11-0, Ranked No. 2 in the nation), at 7 p.m. tonight: This team is sophomoric to the core. But the real joke is on the rest of the conference since they’re the ones forced to put up with Terry Zamaitis and Lauren Cacciamani. With each of these middle blockers at 6-foot-2, they pose a massive one-two threat to the conference. Zamaitis, the 1995 Big Ten Player of the Year, returns for her junior year. Gophers assistant coach, Nao Ikeda, knows the Nittany Lions all too well. “One thing I remember about them is no matter how much you attack, they just keep putting the ball up,” said Ikeda, a former assistant at Illinois. Penn State plays a grueling defensive game and Hebert said it has perhaps the best depth in the conference.
ù Gophers vs. Ohio State (11-0, No. 8 in the nation), at 7 p.m. Saturday: The Buckeyes will arrive in Minneapolis either flying high, or feeling low. Ohio State plays tonight at Wisconsin before coming to Minnesota. It’s a battle of undefeated teams in the first week of conference play.
The Buckeyes typically have a fine offensive unit and are known for their ability to set the pace in a match. Hebert said that’s what makes them so tough. “Ohio State has great tempo on offense,” Hebert said. “It makes the opposition’s defense weaker. They are a very stressful team to play against.” Junior Jen Boleyn led the nation last year is assists with 1,591.
The team should be known as the Rainbow Coalition of volleyball with players from Japan, the Czech Republic, Israel and Belgium.
Notes: Injured Gophers Tara Baynes (lower back) and Katrien DeDecker (knee) continued practicing this week and should be available to play this weekend. Reserve Michelle Miller (back) will probably not see action, Hebert said.