Minnesota spreads its offense to win tourney

Babe Ruth, Larry Bird and John Elway. What do these three champions have in common?
While all were acknowledged superstars in their respective sports, they all were on teams that played well together and won together.
In order for Minnesota’s volleyball team to go anywhere this season they will have to play the same way. They cannot rely solely on last year’s All-Big Ten outside hitter Nicole Branagh to lead them from night to night.
After relying heavily on Branagh early in the year, the Gophers finally showed this weekend they were able to play the team game by attacking opposing teams from all directions.
Coach Mike Hebert recalled last season when the Gophers set the ball to Branagh most of the time.
“You just can’t win at a high level with that kind of one-dimensional attack,” Hebert said. “This year we have a lot more weapons.”
Those weapons Hebert referred to include Branagh, Lisa Aschenbrenner, Yvonne Wichert, Linda Shudlick and Charnette Fair.
The five combined for 152 kills this weekend, led by Branagh’s 41. All five Gophers reached double-digit kill totals in at least one match.
Hebert was particularly impressed with the play of Fair. He said she provides the dynamic, dramatic net play that the Gophers need to succeed.
“It makes the opponent turn their head when someone gets up that high, and blasts the ball that hard, and blocks the ball that well,” Hebert said. “She is a statement player.”
Fair — who is still adjusting to the Division I brand of volleyball — said that when the team plays together, the pressure is removed and she can relax and stick to basics. Fair admits that in the past she sometimes got carried away with her on-court performance.
“I have to stay strong and stick to the fundamentals of volleyball and not try to be the Michael Jordan of volleyball,” Fair said.
Fair also said that her teammates have eased her transition from junior college.
“The team chemistry is the best I have ever seen,” she said.
But Fair and the other attackers cannot do it alone. Hebert said the credit should go to setter Lindsey Berg, because she was able to mix up the sets to throw the rhythm of the opposing players off. Berg finished the weekend with 113 assists.
“When you get that kind of distribution it is a pretty good job by the setter,” he said.
Berg said the many options she has to set the ball to makes her job easier.
“I know anyone I set can probably put the ball down,” Berg said. “I’m able to mix things up. As long as we have good ball control I’m able to run some plays that the blockers on the other side can’t get to.”
And as long as the Gophers continue to mix things up on offense, they should be successful against their rivals in a tough Big Ten conference.