December Madness

Brian Stensaas

After going 17-3 and finishing second in one of the strongest volleyball conferences in the nation, Minnesota is gearing up for a bit of a different breed this weekend at the Sports Pavilion.
The Gophers, seeded second in the west regional behind Hawaii, host little-known 15th seed Robert Morris College on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But don’t go assuming they have an easy ticket to Saturday night’s second round.
The Colonials (21-15) enter the 2000 tournament as back-to-back Northeast Conference champions, earning an automatic bid into the field.
But the real weight is on the shoulders of Minnesota coach Mike Hebert, who has the task of motivating his team after ending the regular season with a disappointing five-game loss to Ohio State: A match which, if won, would have clinched Minnesota’s first-ever Big Ten title.
“If you can imagine being disappointed and thrilled at the same time, that’s what we were,” Hebert said, noting even with the loss the Gophers finished with the most conference wins in school history. “After dropping that match, it was nice to come back here (Sunday) and still be seeded number five of 302 NCAA teams — but most importantly — of the 64 tournament teams.”
Minnesota has never lost an opening round match in the NCAA tournament.
Robert Morris enters the NCAA field after winning 11 of its last 13 matches, including a thrilling five-game win in Baltimore two weeks ago — giving coach Tom Horsmon his second conference title in as many years at the helm of the Colonials. They bring three strong hitters to the court in Maryann Liska, Katie Noble and Julie Sector. The three combined for 1,100 kills this season and have their coach happy to be traveling to Minneapolis.
“This is a phenomenal accomplishment for our program,” Horsmon said. “We battled through a lot to get here and I’m very proud of this team.”
The NCAA volleyball field mirrors that of the more popular March Madness in basketball. And you always hear about those monumental 2-15 seed upsets, something Hebert is well aware of.
“I’ve fell victim to upsets and I have even sprung a few of them,” said Hebert, who has coached in 18 NCAA volleyball tournaments.
“What I have to get through to the team is to play every point and every side-out like it is for the national championship. We can’t be overly cautious and we can’t be overly casual.”
Should Minnesota win Friday night, the Gophers would take on the winner of Arizona State and Duke on Saturday.
Going with the odds, the Sun Devils are expected to defeat the Blue Devils for the right to meet the Gophers — Robert Morris victor on Saturday.
Arizona State finished in a tie for fifth in the PAC 10 — compareable to Michigan State out of the Big Ten. The Spartans gave Minnesota a run for its money last month at the Pavilion with nothing on the line. Pending the top-seeded Warriors win their matches in Honolulu this weekend, the stakes Saturday night in chilly Minneapolis will likely be a trip to tropical Hawaii.
“We’d like to go one step further than we did last year,” Hebert said. “If we get that far and the seeds win out, we’ll have to play the “H” word. Then all of a sudden we’ll be the team with nothing to lose.
“We won’t be happy unless this ends with us doing something significant deep in the tournament.”
Added outside hitter Nicole Branagh, “You have to go in every night hoping to come out 1-0. And if you don’t, your season is over.”
Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]