Volleyball seniors look to go out with a playoff bang

Brian Stensaas

They are three seniors from two states with one common denominator.
The Minnesota volleyball team hosts the first and second rounds of the 2000 NCAA tournament this weekend at the Sports Pavilion. It will likely mark the final time seniors Lisa Aschenbrenner (Illinois), Nicole Branagh and Charnette Fair (both from California) take to the home court as Gophers.
The only way Minnesota returns to action in Minneapolis after this weekend is if the Gophers win twice and have top-seeded Hawaii lose in Honolulu.
The three aren’t looking at this weekend as a final chapter to their careers, however. Rather than focusing on this weekend being their last at the Sports Pavilion, they are looking to dominate here and keep the strong play going wherever the road may take them in the tournament.
“It would be better to go to the Final Four and then say we went out with a bang,” Fair said.
All three are expected to start this weekend, beginning Friday night when the Gophers take on Robert Morris College.
The cozy atmosphere of the Pavilion is a far cry from the 1999 NCAA tournament when the Gophers traveled to Los Angeles for the first two rounds. After breezing past Cal State-Sacramento in the first round, Minnesota — the fifth seed — locked horns with fourth seeded USC.
In what coach Mike Hebert called “one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA history,” the Gophers defeated the Trojans in five games and advanced on to the Sweet 16.
The Gophers find themselves in a similar situation this postseason after losing their final regular season match before the tournament.
Minnesota lost at home against Indiana in its final match last season, and dropped a five-game match at Ohio State last weekend to close out the 2000 campaign.
And rather than see history totally repeat itself, the Gophers want to coast through the first two rounds.
“We need to refocus now and get ready for our third season,” Aschenbrenner said. “We ended the conference season on a disappointment and now we just want to get as far as we can in the tournament.”
While all three of the seniors’ careers have their respective high moments, all three agree one dim situation will stick with them forever.
Last March, Gophers assistant coach Maurice Batie passed away. Batie dealt mostly with the middle blocker position, and Fair said she thinks of the coach often.
“Every time I get a block, I think of him pumping his fist going ‘yeah,'” she said.
“Every day out on the court we have his name on our jerseys and it has really affected the team,” Aschenbrenner added. “It’s something that really sticks out. It has helped us come together and strive to be great for him.”
This weekend marks the first time Minnesota hosts the NCAA tournament since 1996, before any current Gophers were on the roster.
The three seniors saw the seats of the Pavilion slowly but surely fill in for home matches, and were spoiled by sellout crowds.
“Looking back, we still had good crowds a few years ago,” Branagh said. “But once you pack the place, even though there are 3,000 people out there you’re wondering where all the people are.”
Minnesota set a school record for attendance this season, drawing 35,980 fans in 14 matches. It marked the first time over 35,000 showed up for a season.
This weekend, for the final time, fans can show up in Minneapolis to see three seniors work together as one.
Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]