Gophers begin practice with high hopes

Kent Erdahl

Minnesota’s volleyball team will enter the season as the most highly touted in the program’s history.

But excuse the Gophers for not jumping with joy after only five days of practice.

Minnesota’s No. 5 preseason rank is its highest ever, and the team is projected to win the Big Ten for the second-straight season. But last year’s team experienced similar expectations, and the immediate results were less than spectacular.

The Gophers began the 2003 season with a No. 6 ranking, but the team stumbled early and often, losing its first four, and standing at 7-7 at the end of September.

“I think they spent a lot of time last year thinking about being highly regarded. So much so that they forgot to play,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “I think they’ve been through that, suffered the ill effects of focusing on external expectations, and this year has been primarily about what they’re going to do on the court.”

Hebert has reason to believe the Gophers will handle this year’s preseason pressure in a better way.

The Gophers return six seniors from a team that rebounded from early disappointment by going undefeated in October and capturing its first NCAA Final Four appearance.

“One of the things that is going to help us this year is that we really don’t want to start out like we did last year,” senior outside hitter Trisha Bratford said. “We’re looking back at that as a learning experience, and I

think it’s really going to motivate us.”

With all of the returning experience, Hebert said, he doesn’t expect the team to start out 0-4. But he said the No. 5 ranking is a bit high, because this team is not simply an updated version of last year’s.

Although Cassie Busse is the only player the team lost

from last season, she was one

of the most-accomplished outside hitters in the program’s history.

“We have everyone coming back except the First Team All-American,” Hebert said. “That usually spells challenge.”

Because of Busse’s departure, Hebert has implemented a new offense to try to achieve a more balanced attack.

The Gophers are changing to a 6-2 alignment, which means two setters will be on the

floor at once. Last year’s primary alignment relied on one setter.

“We have to develop a different style of offense,” Hebert said. “Last year (Busse) was basically our eraser. If we did not pass the ball well or something went wrong, we would just jack the ball up to her.”

Hebert said the team will have to take a new approach, because it doesn’t have just one dominant player.

The 6-2 offense will allow the Gophers to spread their attack, something Bratford is looking forward to.

“It gives us a lot more versatility, because teams are going to have to pay a lot more attention to what’s going on on our side of the net,” she said.

But by adding another setter, the new alignment means many of the Gophers are still adapting to one another’s differing styles of play.

Senior setter Lindsey Taatjes and sophomore Kelly Bowman have been working with the hitters to develop a good relationship on the court.

Despite a limited time frame and a challenging early schedule, Taatjes said, things have been going smoothly so far.

“I think we’re getting used to it, and the communication is up, so that’s good. It’s great with all the experience,” Taatjes said. “Everyone knows their role, and things are coming together really fast.”

No matter how well things go, Hebert said, he doesn’t expect everything to be perfect by the time the Gophers take the court against No. 11 Colorado on Aug. 27.

Hebert said the team will simply need to rely more on its strengths before figuring out some of the question marks. He said one of those strengths will be Minnesota’s exceptional defense, which is led by the only returning All-American.

Junior libero Paula Gentil is already a two-time All-American, and although she needs to keep track of passing styles for two setters, she figures to ease the team’s transition to a new alignment.

“I like challenges. I don’t like to stay with the same-old, same-old,” Gentil said. “We can compete with whoever as long as we focus on the process instead of the outcome.”

The rankings also project that Minnesota will be able to compete with anyone, but Hebert said the team will need players such as Gentil and senior outside hitter Erin Martin to help everyone focus.

Despite the balance and experience on the team, Gentil and Martin have emerged as leaders on the court, and they were recognized with preseason awards of their own. They are both preseason All-Big Ten selections.

Martin said the special thing about this year is that none of the preseason accolades matter.

“Last year, we were trying to live up to other people’s expectations,” she said. “This year, we’re just trying to live up to ours.”