Long Beach regional features top talent

Jeff Barthel

Minnesota’s volleyball team began its 2003 campaign three and a half months ago with a trip to Hawaii.

The Gophers lost all three matches in Honolulu to three ranked teams at the time – a 3-0 loss to No. 2 Hawaii, a 3-1 loss to No. 22 Louisville and a 3-0 sweep at the hands of No. 16 UCLA.

“It was very good that we had those teams on our schedule,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “We played in some of the toughest arenas in the country against some of the best competition available.”

Minnesota also lost a Sept. 13 match at No. 3 Florida.

“The leftover residue (from those losses) will give (the Gophers) confidence for this weekend,” Hebert said.

Hebert’s 14th-ranked Gophers (24-10) will face No. 4 Pepperdine (27-2) on Friday in Long Beach, Calif. If they defeat the Waves, Minnesota would then take on the winner of No. 5 Stanford (25-6) and 13th ranked Washington (22-8) for a Saturday evening battle for the right to move to the Final Four.

The Gophers will make their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in team history – including a 3-1 loss to Arizona in last year’s tournament.

The 2003 Gophers were ranked sixth at the beginning of the season. However, they lost their first four matches of the season – the three in Hawaii and a 3-2 home loss to unranked Kansas.

After opening the Big Ten season with two losses, Minnesota was 7-7 and had dropped out of the top 25.

Now, the Gophers have won 23 of their past 29 contests and are fresh off a 3-1 victory over No. 16 Northern Iowa.

“(The Panthers) are a team I have tremendous respect for,” Hebert said. “We feel very comfortable having vanquished a notable opponent.”

Minnesota will move on from defeating the Missouri Valley

Conference champions to face Pepperdine – champions of the West Coast conference.

“We’re definitely up for it,” Minnesota All-American Cassie Busse said. “We are excited to play such a highly-competitive team.”

Pepperdine is led under the tutelage of head coach Nina Matthies.

Matthies has compiled a 411-285 (.636) record through her 20-plus years as head coach of the Waves.

The other two that complete the Long Beach regional – Stanford and Washington – are both teams Minnesota has yet to defeat.

The Gophers are 0-2 against the Cardinal and lost the only match they’ve played against the Huskies.

The two Pac-10 teams finished their conference in second and fifth place, respectively.

Minnesota hasn’t played Washington since Sept. 7, 1996. The Gophers played Stanford and Pepperdine to open last season’s schedule.

“All I remember is the excitement here when we had to play them,” Busse said. “We were all just especially excited to get the season started.”

The Gophers defeated Pepperdine and lost to then top-ranked Stanford 3-1.

It was a match where the two teams were tied 1-1 and Minnesota had a 27-26 lead in game three. The Gophers then surrendered four straight points and lost the match 30-21, 24-30, 30-27, 30-21.

The Cardinal – who won the 2001 national championship – went on to a 33-5 record last season.

Stanford also made it to the 2002 national championship match but lost the title to USC.

The Trojans, coincidentally, have only lost one match over the past two seasons – Stanford defeated USC 3-2 (30-26, 16-30, 30-26, 28-30, 16-14) on Nov. 11, 2002.

USC is in a different bracket from the Gophers, but could face Minnesota should the 2002 Big Ten champions win two matches this weekend.