Central Florida poses threat

Tim Klobuchar

The NCAA basketball tournament regularly offers- up champions of obscure conferences as sacrifices to teams from big-name ones.
The volleyball tournament works in much the same way, and at first glance, tonight’s first-round match between the Gophers (23-10) and Central Florida (23-12) looks like a perfect case study of that tournament trait.
Minnesota finished fourth in the vaunted Big Ten, behind three teams ranked in the nation’s top 12. The Knights, meanwhile, are from the Trans America Athletic Conference, hardly a hotbed of volleyball talent.
But while Central Florida represents a conference that sounds more like a cheap airline, it bears little resemblance to tournament cupcakes that have preceded it.
First, the Knights didn’t exactly muddle their way through the Trans America — they dominated it, and have done so since Laura Smith took over as head coach six years ago. In her tenure, Central Florida has compiled a mind-boggling 56-0 record within the conference.
“That’s one advantage Minnesota has,” Smith said. “They play in the Big Ten, and every match they play is a very good volleyball match. We dominate our conference.”
Smith’s distaste for conference games has led her to schedule many tough nonconference games with big Division I schools, mostly on the road. This year the Knights have beaten Clemson, No. 23 South Florida, and on Saturday, Georgia. Smith is hoping that the improved schedule pays off in the form of a tournament win. Central Florida has lost in the first round of the tourney the last two years.
“I feel more prepared than I ever have,” Smith said.
Minnesota and Central Florida share two common opponents — Georgia Tech and Purdue. The Knights were 0-2 against the teams, and the Gophers were 2-1 with both wins coming against the Boilermakers.
The Knights and Minnesota also have a reliance on one big hitter. The Gophers have senior Katrien DeDecker, who is third in the nation in kills per game with 6.03, and the Knights have Renata Menchikova, who is second with 6.05.
Central Florida’s conference record and its performance against stronger teams is enough to make Gophers coach Mike Hebert wary; not that Hebert is in the habit of looking past first-round opponents. Although the winner of this match gets to travel to California to play No. 8 Long Beach State, Hebert’s extensive experience in the tournament (this is his 12th straight appearance, the last 11 with Illinois) tells him to beware.
“There’s an experience factor that once you get it in the program, it’s there forever,” Hebert said. “And that experience factor usually means you don’t overlook anybody. You have to prepare for a team’s very best shot.”
That’s a thought almost every coach echoes during tournament or playoff time. But one of Hebert’s next statements, though it was said with a smile, was graphic enough in detail to make Hebert’s caution more believable.
“They say the alleyway is strewn with carcasses of teams that have thought they could automatically win a first-round matchup,” he said.
“He knows how to prepare us and get us in the ready mode,” Gophers setter Becky Bauer said of Hebert.
By all accounts, the Gophers are avoiding a bout with first-rounditis, but they still must contend with a different, more conventional illness. The flu bug has gradually worked its way through a good portion of the team, including Bauer and DeDecker.
Bauer referred to last weekend when the Gophers upset No. 10 Ohio State on the road despite several sick team members, as proof that the team can make itself look healthier than it is.
“You can put it behind you,” she said in a slightly stuffed-up voice. “Look at last weekend. We played really well and there was a lot of sick people on the team. It’s just that communicating can get kind of hard when you lose your voice.”

Notes: Middle blocker Tara Baynes is questionable for the match with a sore back.
DeDecker has been voted to the all-Big Ten team for the third time in her career. She also made the 1993 and 1995 teams. She was one of four unanimous selections to the team. Vanessa Wouters of Ohio State was voted the conference’s player of the year, and Penn State’s Russ Rose was coach of the year.
Tickets are still available for tonight’s match, which starts at 7 p.m. at the Sports Pavilion.