On Friday night, Minnesota’s 22nd-ranked volleyball team (17-9, 10-4 Big Ten) defeated Purdue in straight sets. Before the match, there was a short presentation that merited high applause from the crowd.
Coach Mike Hebert walked onto the court with a volleyball. The majority of the 3,039 fans in attendance – Minnesota’s second largest home crowd of the season – stood in elation as Hebert handed a specially marked volleyball to his All-American libero Paula Gentil.
“I was surprised,” Gentil said. “I heard the announcer say ‘Paula Gentil’ and then I just ran out there and got the ball.”
The ball represented Gentil’s 1,000 career digs, a sensational achievement for the Fortaleza, Brazil, native. Only seven players in Minnesota history have collected more digs than the second-year player.
Gentil, a 21-year-old sophomore, now has 1,052 career digs after scooping up 37 in her team’s matches against Purdue and Indiana this last weekend.
Though her accomplishments are admirable, Gentil is not the only Gophers player making contributions to the team’s success at making digs.
The Gophers lead the Big Ten in digs, with 1,680 in 26 matches. Minnesota led the conference with 2,216 digs in 38 matches last season.
The dig total can be attributed much in part to the efforts of a small group of defensive standouts.
“We have three or four defensive specialists and liberos who are very accomplished defenders,” Hebert said. “I think our entire team has followed their lead. It has become a digging parade and everybody wants to get in on the act.”
Gentil’s 478 digs not only lead the Gophers this season, she also stands atop the Big Ten. Next in line on the team is setter Lindsey Taatjes with 268 and Cassie Busse’s 216 digs.
Rounding out the Minnesota dig leaders are freshman defensive specialist Marci Peniata and junior defensive specialist/libero Lisa Reinhart. Peniata and Reinhart have scooped up 196 and 164 digs, respectively.
Taatjes praised Reinhart.
“She has a really good attitude in keeping us loose on the floor,” Taatjes said. “She always gets the balls you don’t think she’s going to get to.”
As an upperclassman, Reinhart knows how digs can play a key role in making long rallies and coming up with a point for the team.
“I like it when we get a really good combination play.” Reinhart said. “When somebody just hustled a lot to get a really good dig, then we get a really good set and somebody’s there to knock down the kill.”
She said this type of effort is the thing she likes to see most when she’s out on the court.
Reinhart is a dig specialist. She primarily comes off the bench to serve, play the backcourt and contribute to team defense.
Taatjes, on the other hand, is a setter who has improved on her digging ability.
“She’s really improved a lot in being really aggressive,” Reinhart said. “She’ll read (the movement of the ball) and then she’ll make a really good move on it. She’s a silent leader, but she can get really revved up when she needs to.”
Taatjes quietly collected a career-high 19 digs in last Friday’s match versus Purdue.
She has been joined by Peniata, an up-and-coming freshman.
A player from Plymouth, Minn., Peniata has learned how to dig at the collegiate level. And she knows it’s a whole new level of play in the Big Ten.
“It’s definitely the speed of the game,” Peniata said. “I’m adapted to it now, but in the beginning, I was like ‘whoa, this is pretty fast.’ “
Peniata, Gentil and the rest of the Gophers will continue to exhibit their defensive efforts by digging their way to the top.
Minnesota currently trails 15th-ranked Penn State (22-4, 11-3) by one match for the reins of Big Ten supremacy.
To fight for this title, Minnesota will rely on good defense. Similar to their 2002 championship team, Minnesota volleyball looks primed to repeat atop the Big Ten leaders in digs.