Despite loss of Gentil, talent returns next season

This season was not like any other year in recent history for Minnesota’s volleyball team.The team was knocked out of the second round of the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in the past five years.

Robert Mews

This season was not like any other year in recent history for Minnesota’s volleyball team.

The team was knocked out of the second round of the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in the past five years.

However, the season’s end and eventual fourth-game collapse against Tennessee on Saturday might have been predicted given the Gophers’ constant battle for identity and intensity all season.

Minnesota senior libero Paula Gentil even said a day after the season ended in Knoxville, Tenn., that “something was missing.”

However, Gentil ” along with coach Mike Hebert ” said she was somewhat expecting this to happen. Last season’s Final Four squad was almost entirely dismantled with graduation. Hebert had to fill the roster with new talent that included two transfers and six incoming freshmen.

“It’s just really tough to have eight new players and have everything go smoothly,” Hebert said after the Tennessee loss.

The youth contributed to early season success. Minnesota was even within three points of beating No. 1 Nebraska on Sept. 5 at the Sports Pavilion.

That close match along with early success in the Big Ten might have had some people speculate that this year’s squad would achieve the same level of success that recent Gophers teams’ have.

Yet Hebert was not convinced.

“I’m not sure we are as good as our ranking indicates,” Hebert said before an Oct. 21 match with Ohio State at the Sports Pavilion.

Minnesota was ranked 12th nationally then, but that’s when the lack of experience set in for the Gophers.

The team was swept at home that weekend against Ohio State and Penn State.

The Penn State match was a season low for Minnesota. The Gophers finished the Oct. 22 match with a school-record low nine points in the first game.

“People go through this, especially when you’re searching for an identity,” Hebert said about that early-season match.

Things would get better. The team won its next four matches and found itself fighting for second place in the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, Hebert was playing four to six freshmen for much of that stretch.

One of the keys to the young success was Kyla Roehrig ” a 6-foot-4-inch outside hitter from Papillion, Neb.

She settled into her left outside hitter position nicely. She was able to slide between offensive and defensive roles.

In a Nov. 4 contest against Michigan, Roehrig led the team with 12 kills and 3.5 blocks.

Roehrig said that week she was working on being more confident in her hitting.

“If you’re more confident in yourself, your team will trust you more,” Roehrig said.

Roehrig led the talented young class of freshman that was ranked fourth nationally by Prepvolleyball.com.

Yet it was the seniors who led the team down the stretch of the season. That group included Jessica Byrnes, Athena Mallakis, and All-American Gentil.

The three became the winningest class in school history this season with more than 110 wins over the past four seasons.

Gentil was a big part of that success. She displayed an uncanny ability on the floor that had helped cement the libero position at Minnesota.

“She has a special gift that was immediately evident,” Hebert said about Gentil.

Gentil eventually would break the all-time NCAA record for digs in the tournament, but it was her leadership on the court that helped the Gophers win four of its final six matches in the regular season.

Most of the team’s success was driven around the defense and the ability to serve, and Gentil was a big part of that success as well.

“We give people a lot of trouble with our serving game,” Hebert said Nov. 4, after a win over Michigan. “Paula Gentil has really refined her serving game… she probably has a very large percentage of them (service aces).”

The leadership of the seniors and upperclassmen along with the talented youth helped Minnesota win some key matches down the critical final stretch of the Big Ten season. Minnesota won its first match against a ranked team Nov. 12 against No. 13 Wisconsin, and followed on Nov. 19 against

No. 17 Ohio State, and on the season’s final night against No. 22 Purdue.

Those wins helped Minnesota keep steady pace with Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue in the Big Ten race. The Gophers were able to finish tied for third with the Buckeyes.

Despite the achievements, the NCAA selection committee didn’t give Minnesota a seed, while it gave one to Big Ten champions Penn State, along with Big Ten opponents Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Northwestern.

Hebert said he was not disappointed with the selection, but what happened in Knoxville might be what this team needs to go into next season.

“I’m especially happy that we’re going to have such a large group of returning people for the next two to three years,” Hebert said. “So I think the future is very bright for this team.”

Indeed, next season may be bright considering Minnesota will lose only three players to graduation and much of this season’s core group of success will be returning with playing experience.

“I also think that next year, those eight new people are going to be even more solid for us,” junior captain and middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “It gives us a lot to look forward to next year.”