Gophers end with Final Four run

Minnesota finished the season ranked No. 4 in the nation.

Volleyball vs. Michigan

Ian Larson

Volleyball vs. Michigan

by Aleutian Calabay

Rarely do teams progress throughout the course of a season like the Minnesota volleyball team did in 2009. The Gophers began the season as a young team that lacked a playing identity. But as the season progressed, they grew into a team that ultimately made its way through the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, then came home for the regional rounds and crushed both Colorado State and Florida State 3-1 on their way to the Final Four. MinnesotaâÄôs run came to an abrupt end, however, as it was unable to get past an athletic and tough Texas team, losing in three sets. Fittingly, Minnesota finished the season ranked No. 4. âÄúI thought we went about as far as we could in the tournament,âÄù Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert said. âÄúDestinee Hooker and those kids [at Texas] are athletes that are beyond the normal team in Division I college volleyball.âÄù Texas was taken down two days later by volleyball dynasty Penn State in the National Championship match. The Nittany Lions came back from being down 2-0 to win their third-straight championship and extend their winning streak to 102 matches. The GophersâÄô season threatened to implode when Junior Brook Dieter âÄî who at the time led the team in kills âÄî abruptly quit the team. But instead of letting that loss send them spiraling downward, they used it as inspiration moving forward. âÄúI knew our team could go in two different directions [after Dieter left],âÄù junior captain Lauren Gibbemeyer said. âÄúIt could go totally down the tubes, or we could go the way we went. We decided we were not going to let anything keep us down and refused to make excuses and let anything get in the way.âÄù Minnesota did not miss a beat, moving junior Hailey Cowles from defensive specialist to outside hitter. Cowles did not have the size to be a force at the net, but she continually made up for it by finding ways to get outside kills, making up a large part of the production that departed with Dieter. âÄúHailey played very well and the teamâÄôs chemistry started to gel,âÄù Hebert said. âÄúThere wasnâÄôt any kind of big scandal, [Dieter] left because she wanted to and there was a noticeable change in team chemistry on and off the court.âÄù Any production that may have still been lacking was made up by the emergence of freshman Tabitha Love. She continued to become more of an offensive threat for the Gophers as the season went on, hitting the ball with what Hebert called reckless abandon. LoveâÄôs play peaked when it mattered most as she collected 22 kills against Colorado State and 21 kills against Florida State; not surprisingly, she was named MVP of the Minneapolis NCAA Tournament Region. âÄúI definitely think this season was unique because of the adversity we faced midway through the season,âÄù Love said. âÄúIt would have been easy for us to crumble and let our chemistry and work ethic fall apart and call it a season. I think that we had something to prove of ourselves and that helped motivate us to get as far as we did.âÄù While the run to the Final Four will be what the 2009 Gophers are best remembered for, their defining moment may have come a month earlier in a road match against Michigan State. Minnesota had just lost in straight sets to Michigan, and with only three regular season matches remaining, the Gophers knew that tournament seeding and momentum hung in the balance. They fell behind 0-2 to the Spartans, but came back to win the last three sets and take the match 3-2. It was the first time in two years Minnesota had come back from two sets down to win. If there was a point in the season that showed how the team came together, that was it. The Gophers then came home and finished the regular season with sweeping victories over Northwestern and Illinois, giving the team the momentum they needing going into the NCAA Tournament. There is plenty of reason for Minnesota to feel confident moving forward. It loses seniors Christine Tan , Taylor Carico and Megan Wilson , but maintains a lot of its core, including Gibbemeyer and Cowles, who will be coming back for their senior season. âÄúIâÄôm extremely optimistic,âÄù said Hebert about his teamâÄôs future. âÄúI fully expect us to be a team that contends for both conference and national championships in the coming years.âÄù