Spikers look back, ahead with equal enthusiasm

Ben Goessling

PALO ALTO, Calif. – The tears had barely dried in the eyes of Minnesota’s volleyball players after the Gophers loss to No. 12 Arizona in the Pacific Regional semifinal Thursday night. But outside hitter Erin Martin, for one, couldn’t contain her excitement about the team’s future.

Martin addressed the media after Thursday night’s loss with her ever-present smile, reflecting proudly on the team’s season, which brought the first Big Ten title in school history, and looking forward to the 2003 season, where the team will likely be favored to repeat its conference championship and improve upon its successes this year.

“I’m already excited to jump out there again and play,” she said. “We will learn from this experience, and when we get back here next year, I know we are not going to lose.”

After a season that included three victories over top-10 teams (a school record), a 16-0 start on the road (also a school record) and 11 straight wins in the Big Ten (yet another school record), the Gophers certainly cannot be faulted for maintaining the enthusiasm that characterized their season.

Picked to finish sixth in the conference, Minnesota began its season Aug. 23 with a victory over eighth-ranked Pepperdine in the prestigious State Farm Classic, immediately putting to rest questions of whether the Gophers belonged in the tournament and starting Minnesota on a ride that would make it the surprise story of the

volleyball community.

After a victory over No. 7 UCLA the next weekend and a 9-1 start in the Big Ten that included its first victory at Wisconsin in seven years and a sweep of ninth-ranked Penn State, it was clear Minnesota was for real.

The Gophers placed three players on the first all-Big Ten team: outside hitter Cassie Busse, setter Lindsey Vander Well and libero Paula Gentil. All three players were also named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s all-Mideast region team.

Additionally, coach Mike Hebert was selected Big Ten and Mideast Region coach of the year, Gentil was tabbed conference defensive player of the year and Gentil joined middle blocker Jessica Byrnes on the Big Ten’s all-freshman team.

“I’ll always remember this season for what we did before (the loss to Arizona),” said senior defensive specialist Lisa Axel, who played her last match Thursday night. “We proved everybody wrong in winning the Big Ten, and the loss does not take that feeling away.”

Axel is the only player on Minnesota’s roster graduating this season, and the Gophers will make significant additions to their already-talented core.

Minnesota adds setter Kelly Bowman, the fourth-ranked recruit in the country, according to StudentSports.com, and middle blocker Meredith Nelson, the No. 10 recruit nationally.

Additionally, the Gophers will receive the services of middle blockers Maggie Freiborg and Athena Mallakis, both of whom redshirted this season with ACL tears. The addition of Nelson and the return of Freiborg and Mallakis will shore up a position which often suffered from a lack of depth this season, as preseason all-Big Ten pick Bethany Brafford suffered through her worst collegiate

season.

Minnesota must replace Axel, who became the team’s most consistent player as the season wore on and matured into one of its best defenders. But the talented core, the Gophers’ return has Hebert anticipating next season.

“It is a little quick to look ahead, but the level of excitement is high,” he said. “We have to replace Axel’s passing and defending, but it is like we add four players to our roster next year with Freiborg and Mallakis returning.”

If Minnesota gains one thing from its loss to the Wildcats, it is the addition of valuable postseason experience to a young core of players.

The Gophers blew seven- and five-point leads in the first two games, respectively, and came within two points of winning the match. Despite not advancing to the first Elite Eight in school history, Hebert still ranks the 2002 Gophers as the best team in school history and expects even bigger things next season.

“I do think this is the best team in Gophers history, after everything we accomplished this year,” he said. “It is important to become more mature. We faltered just enough mentally in the Arizona match to let them steal it from us, but you have to climb the rungs one at a time. Time has to pass.

“But we should have the experience to take the next step next year.”

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]