Spikers lead with no official team captains

Jeff Barthel

After being called captains, it turns out the three appointed players of Minnesota’s volleyball team have not been captains for more than two months.

Prior to the season, coach Mike Hebert and his coaching staff named seniors Cassie Busse and Erin Lorenzen and junior Lindsey Taatjes team captains.

However, the Gophers – who were pre-ranked No. 6 in the nation – started their 2003 campaign with an 0-4 record. They fought back to win seven of their next eight matches, but then fell in their first two Big Ten contests.

It was after these two losses – 3-0 and 3-1 defeats to unranked Indiana on Sept. 26 and Purdue on Sept. 27 – that Hebert dropped the team captain titles.

“I had decided that I wanted to see leadership emerge spontaneously or naturally,” Hebert said. “And, as it turned out, it was a good decision.”

Minnesota’s team has excelled since dropping those matches. The Gophers have won 15 of their last 18 contests heading into the NCAA tournament this week.

“I don’t know if it was so much a punishment as much as it was just a realization,” middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “I think we have a lot of young players and really needed that leadership from the older people, they’ve also realized that and have since then done a good job.”

The Gophers have only three seniors on their roster, one being a transfer and ineligible to play.

Minnesota also faced defending its first Big Ten championship, something Hebert was not expecting.

“It was supposed to be in 2003,” Hebert said of winning last year’s title. “We started the plan five years ago; we lucked out, caught some breaks, and wound up winning it last year.”

The 2002 Gophers were 32-6 overall and 17-3 in Big Ten play. The record nearly mirrored a 30-4, 17-3 mark in 2000, but paled in comparison to a 19-13, 10-10 record in their 2001 season.

Outside hitter Erin Martin was on the 2001 team. The 6-foot attack player had 194 kills and a .174 hitting percentage that season.

This year, Martin is third on the team in kills (389) and ranks second with her .244 hitting percentage.

“On the court, I definitely feel Martin has been a leader,” freshman Athena Mallakis said, “just by the emotions she shows and the actions she makes on the court as well.”

Mallakis, a 6-foot-2-inch middle blocker, has a lot of respect for her older teammates and believes the absence of the captain title does not mean she has lost any respect for two of her senior teammates.

“I think Coach just wanted us, as a team, to find ourselves and come together more as a team,” Mallakis said. “Cassie and Erin (Lorenzen), to me, are still the team captains, both on the court and off the court.”

Busse leads the team with 523 kills. Lorenzen, who normally comes off the bench, has six blocks in 11 games played.

On the defensive side, Paula Gentil, the 2002 Big Ten defensive player of the year, leads

the way. The 5-foot-9-inch sophomore has a team-leading 559 digs. The dig total also leads the Big Ten.

“The official name (captain) isn’t there, but the leadership is still definitely the same,” Gentil said. “I still often go to Cassie and (Lorenzen), and they help out a lot.”

Busse is player of the year

The Big Ten announced Monday evening that Busse is the conference’s player of the year. She is only the third player in Minnesota history to earn the honor, joining Nicole Branagh (co-player of the year, 2000) and Martie Larsen (1983).

Busse is third in the Big Ten this season with 4.71 kills per game and leads the conference with .46 aces per game.

She joined Gentil on the Big Ten’s all-first team while Taatjes earned honorable mention all-conference.

Gentil was also named the Big Ten defensive player of the year for the second consecutive season.

Nelson was named to the all-freshman team.