Gophers middle blocker Stephanie Hagen took the long route to joining Minnesota’s volleyball program. In fact, the Minnetonka, Minn., native might have even traveled a greater distance than some of her foreign-born teammates.
Hagen’s journey wasn’t transcontinental, but it did include signing a letter of intent to attend Iowa State in February, learning from outsiders of the volleyball program’s suspension and fighting for a waiver from the commitment to become an immediate competitor in the Big Ten.
Minnesota had been recruiting Hagen since her sophomore year of high school, but not aggressively. Gophers coach Mike Hebert and his staff were unsure that she could compete at the Big Ten level. And since Minnesota was already stacked in the middle, Hagen’s stock decreased.
But a season-ending injury to senior Linda Shudlick and Tara Baynes’ retirement not only stripped the Gophers of veteran leadership in the middle, it also left little time for rest for the two remaining middle blockers — sophomores Heather Baxter and Erica Glaser.
Caught in a potentially serious predicament, the coaching staff scanned the country for talented middle blockers who might have been lost in the shuffle.
Luckily for the Gophers and their thinned-out middle, an early May trip to Ames, Iowa revealed that Hagen was also in a predicament, although she was unaware of it at the time.
“When we got there to play, the coaches weren’t around and there was no Iowa State team,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. “They ran their own tournament, but they didn’t play.”
Hebert heard rumors about coaches resigning and players quitting. These rumors were confirmed and ultimately led to a program suspension by Iowa State’s athletic director Gene Smith.
“We thought, ‘Wait a minute — isn’t this where Steph Hagen is going to go to school, and does she know about it?'” Hebert said.
Unable to talk to Hagen under NCAA rules, Hebert mentioned the situation to Doug Bergman, Hagen’s junior coach with the Northern Lights club. Bergman then told Hagen’s unsuspecting parents about the turmoil at Iowa State.
“I guess the players made complaints about the coaches and the coaches just resigned,” Hagen said. “The coaches didn’t follow NCAA rules, they had favorites and just didn’t run a good program.”
Still, Hagen said she was impressed by what she saw and heard during her recruiting trip to Iowa State.
“(The coaches) were really, really nice,” Hagen said. “(The players) told me they loved them and the program.
“I found out later they were told to lie to me. The coaches told the players not to say anything bad about the program and to say the coaching staff was good.”
This news led to two months of relentless work by Hagen and her parents. First, they sought a release from the Iowa State commitment to talk to Minnesota. After both sides agreed that they needed each other, the Hagens requested — and were granted — a rare waiver from Hagen’s letter of intent to Iowa State.
“I knew they probably wouldn’t take me here if I didn’t get out of the national letter of intent because I would lose two years of eligibility,” Hagen said. “I was pretty confident, though, because a lot of people were helping me with it.”
Hebert said Iowa State “cooperated fully every step of the way” with acquiring the waiver. In July, Hagen signed a new letter of intent, one that made her a Gopher.
“I think she wanted to come to Minnesota anyway; (Hagen’s parents) were thrilled to be able to make that change and we were of course the recipients,” Hebert said. “In the meantime, we realized that Steph was getting better and better as a player and in the end we were confident that she could play in the Big Ten.”
But Hagen has been what Hebert calls “a very pleasant surprise.” The sophomore received very little recruiting attention, but competes like a player who was on the recruiting list of every Division I school in the nation.
“I think what’s so noteworthy about Steph is that she is so consistent and is managing the stress of the competition at this level very well,” Hebert said. “She’s a starting middle (blocker) on a Top 25 team, so she’s pretty good.”
Hagen’s .316 attack percentage has helped the Gophers to an 11-2 record. The middle blocker led Minnesota to a 3-0 upset of then-ranked No. 14 Ohio State at the Sports Pavilion with a .545 attack percentage.
Although she is putting up veteran-like numbers, Hebert said Hagen has to improve her blocking. Hagen agreed, saying that strengthening her blocking game is just one part of the adjustment between high school and college.
“The game is faster and more intense, much more intense,” Hagen said. “The girls are stronger and taller.”
But Hagen deals well with the increased pressure on the court. Fellow middle blockers Baxter and Glaser said Hagen’s not anxious when competing, like a typical newcomer. The rest of the team can sense Hagen’s composure, too.
“She provides stability,” Hebert said. “She’s always part of the solution, never a part of the problem.”