Volleyball team eager to defend Big Ten crown

This preseason, the Gophers were unanimously picked to win the Big Ten for the first time in program history.

How does the sixth-ranked Minnesota volleyball team plan to protect its Big Ten champion honors? Minnesota faithful will soon find out as the Gophers begin their first season as defending conference champions.

Coach Mike Hebert has reason to be excited for the upcoming season. He has a plethora of weapons returning for him, including captain Cassie Busse and defensive specialist Paula Gentil – both 2002 AVCA All-Americans – along with other starters and some talented freshmen.

When asked about the new season, Hebert replied with confidence. He optimistically described the team’s recent time spent on practices and preparation for the season.

“It’s mostly been about practice,” Hebert said. “There’s been no time to discuss what other people think of us.”

This might be a good approach to take when considering the situation his team is in. The Gophers – unanimously picked this preseason to win the Big Ten for the first time in program history – are returning with a highly talented squad and 10 other Big Ten teams plotting to take their crown.

The players remain confident. Busse spoke with ease as she described her thoughts on this season.

“The chemistry is really great,” Busse said. “We’re ready to get our feet wet after a long offseason.”

Gentil, a standout at the libero position and the 2002 Big Ten defensive player of the year, also spoke confidentially about the new challenges ahead for this season.

“Teams should be ready to play Minnesota this year,” Gentil said. “We will be good.”

Herbert, who begins his eighth season as head coach, is getting set for the tasks that lie ahead. He plans to primarily rely on returning stars, but also has a lot of confidence in his incoming freshmen.

“Our (the team’s) volleyball IQ went up from our new freshman players,” said Hebert, whose recruiting class was ranked best in the nation by prepvolleyball.com.

Hebert made note of two freshmen in particular, setters Marci Peniata and Kelly Bowman.

As for finding playing time for the newcomers, Hebert said the talent is undeniable.

“Bowman is too good to be on the bench,” Hebert said.

The team started the season with a tough test by traveling to Hawaii for a four-team tournament last weekend. They took on NCAA powers No. 2 Hawaii, No. 13 UCLA and No. 22 Louisville.

The team’s first home matches will be this weekend when the Gophers host the Nike Invitational tournament at the Sports Pavilion. Kansas, Dayton and Marquette will join Minnesota to round out the four-team field. The Gophers open play with a match against the Jayhawks Friday at 7:30 p.m.