For Minnesota, focus is on the defense

As the Minnesota volleyball team opened the weekâÄôs practice for its second week of the Big Ten season, the Gophers focused on some good old fashioned defense. From 5-foot-4 junior libero Christine Tan to 6-foot-4 senior outside hitter Kyla Roehrig, everyone aside from the setters spent the first 15 minutes of practice working on passing technique, tracking down balls in every direction and sending them back up to where the setter would be. Defense. ItâÄôs what coach Mike Hebert has built his career on, and itâÄôs the same thing that has the Gophers enjoying a 12-2 record while sitting atop the Big Ten in both kills and blocks this season. âÄúThere are no secrets, Hebert said. âÄúWe spend a good deal of our practice playing defense.âÄù The Gophers have averaged 3.03 blocks and 18.4 digs per set this season, out-digging the next highest team by 2.75. These numbers have led to a .134 opponentâÄôs hitting percentage, the second-best in the conference behind the No. 1 team in the country, Penn State. MinnesotaâÄôs program has followed this pattern through HebertâÄôs years of success, as the GophersâÄô defensive strengths have always seemed to outweigh any offensive focus. But thatâÄôs just how Hebert said he wants it to be. âÄúIn any team sport, the only way you can win with a great offensive team is to outscore another great offensive team,âÄù he said. âÄúIf you donâÄôt stop them from scoring, you only have one chance to win. But by playing defense, you give yourself more than one chance to win. âÄúIf I had to choose, I would choose to be strong on defense just because it gives you more chances to win.âÄù This philosophy is different from many schools around the nation, as many teams place the emphasis on the offense. But with the GophersâÄô giving first thought to the defense, itâÄôs exactly the type of place defensive-minded players like Tan want to be. âÄúMike and the coaches here respect defensive players,âÄù she said. âÄúOther schools I talked to kind of made defense a second thought, because they focused on big hitters and offense. But Minnesota really values its defense, and I really appreciated that.âÄù These values helped bring in some of the nationâÄôs best liberos like Paula Gentil and Malama Peniata, helping to solidify the GophersâÄô back row over the last decade. In the front row, big blockers like Meredith Nelson and Jessy Jones paved the way for the success of sophomore middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer and the rest of the front row. But Minnesota appears to be having an even stronger year in blocking than usual, which Gibbemeyer attributed to improved understanding of the game, the team buying into a system which doesnâÄôt allow for forced, faulty blocks and above all else, conditioning. Gibbemeyer explained that in blocking, the stamina of a team is shown when they collect their blocks. A poorly conditioned team blocks well early, then fizzles out, while a better-conditioned team can keep the numbers steady throughout a match. âÄúOur team is actually one whose blocks increase as the match goes on,âÄù Gibbemeyer said. âÄúThe more conditioned you are, the longer you can last and the more explosive you are later in the match.âÄù Hebert contended however, that the biggest reason for the success of the defense isnâÄôt found in individual parts, but instead in one lump sum of talent. âÄúItâÄôs not all about individual skill acquisition,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs about training a system and making sure your players understand the concepts on defense. What are we trying to accomplish as a team? âÄúThatâÄôs where I think other programs might break down a little bit. A lot of people train individual defense, but not many connect the dots. We spend a lot of time connecting the dots.âÄù