Whether Minnesota’s women’s volleyball team extends its post-season appearance streak to three years depends on only two matches.
But with their final conference matches to be played in a homestand this weekend, even a split between No. 20 Illinois on Friday and Purdue on Saturday could severely hinder the Gophers’ (17-12 overall, 7-11 in the Big Ten) chances.
With only one senior on the team, the program should rebound from a possible tournament lockout when spring practices resume. But for the competitive Jill McDonell, it’s too early to clean out her Gophers locker.
“The thought of not making the NCAAs has not been a question,” McDonell said.
McDonell’s commitment to Minnesota hasn’t always been so strong. At one time contract disputes within the program left the recruiting process frozen. Seeing the unrest, the Brooklyn Park, Minn., native made a half-hearted verbal commitment to Valparaiso.
“It’s different for me because I’m from Minnesota and I’ve always watched the Gophers,” McDonell said. “Growing up I always wanted that dream for myself.”
Two days before the letter of intent was due, McDonell took a call from then-Gophers assistant coach Vivian Langley. When Langley learned of McDonell’s commitment to the Valparaiso team, she ended the conversation with a simple `good luck.’
But persistence is part of McDonell’s character.
“I contacted her again, kind of having this looming thought she had other plans,” McDonell said. She learned there was still a spot on the roster waiting for her if she wanted it.
Since that exchange, McDonell has not set any records in a Gophers uniform, but she has earned coach Mike Hebert’s respect. Hebert refers to the senior as his “insurance policy” because of her ability to come off the bench and stabilize the team anywhere on the court.
“I have a lot of respect for Jill’s ability to embrace what has been a less than full-time role,” Hebert said. “She has done that with a lot of dignity.”
Part of that acceptance stems from McDonell’s realization that her talent is special. As a sociology major aspiring to go to law school, McDonell volunteers for a juvenile diversion program in her hometown. The volleyball player deals with first-time offenders ranging from ages 12 to 17.
“Basically, it takes good kids out of the system and gives them a second chance,” McDonell said.
Another reason behind the good-natured attitude are her parents Dan and Mary Ann. Growing up, the five McDonell daughters were taught to never back down from a challenge.
“The way my parents brought me up, they never believed in quitting,” McDonell said. “Everything’s not going to be ice cream and cake, but I can seriously say that I’ve never quit anything.”
McDonell’s family will be in attendance this weekend as she suits up for her final matches in the Sports Pavilion and quite possibly her last collegiate competition. After all, McDonell believes “my family is my biggest fan.
“I’m sort of the last string, the final hurrah for my parents,” McDonell said. “It’s a sad night to see. It’s the end.”