Spikers’ ‘athletic’ Vander Well emerges, ready to lead her team

by Ben Goessling

Her teammates call her “Hobbs,” but Lindsey Vander Well, Minnesota’s volleyball team’s setter, seems a little uneasy about the nickname.

The moniker is a reference to her innate talent a la Roy Hobbs, Robert Redford’s character in “The Natural,” but Vander Well didn’t give the movie a glowing review.

“Coach (Dennis) Amundson made me watch it before he gave me the nickname last year,” Vander Well said. “I liked it, but it was a little cheesy.”

Maybe Vander Well didn’t identify with the film because some aspects of her journey have been, well, unnatural.

The Gophers volleyball program boasts a long lineage of great setters, four-year starters who led the team from their first practice until their final game.

Minnesota’s last four setters – Sharon Oesterling, Sue Jackson, Becky Bauer, and Lindsey Berg – hold the four top spots in the team’s career assist record book.

In fact, the last time the Gophers had a setter who didn’t start for four years, Vander Well wasn’t born.

And when Vander Well arrived on campus last fall, it was with the understanding she would sit for a year and learn from Berg.

“She drafted a weekly log of Berg’s play last year,” head coach Mike Hebert said. “She had to write down something she learned from Berg every day. It was a very formal process.”

Lightly recruited out of Central Minnesota Christian High School in Prinsburg, Minn., Vander Well entered college surrounded by questions as to whether she could carry on the tradition.

None were bigger, though, than the ones she asked herself.

“I wasn’t sure I could play at this level,” she said. “I always wanted to, but I needed a year to learn the differences between college and high school.”

But when Minnesota lost to Northern Iowa in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, Vander Well’s time was up; Berg and All-American Stephanie Hagen finished their careers, and Vander Well was put in charge of a young, unproven team.

A year later, Vander Well’s apprenticeship seems to have paid off. She was named the Big Ten Player of the Week on Sept. 16, and the Gophers enter conference play Friday night ranked eighth in the country.

“Her learning curve was very fast, and she answered all the questions,” assistant coach Brian Heffernan said. “When I enter a match, Lindsey Vander Well is never one of my worries.”

Vander Well has seen the differences, too.

“I went back to my high school a couple weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe I ever played like that,” she said. “It’s a totally different level in college, and learning under Lindsey (Berg) last year helped a lot.”

And according to junior middle blocker Bethany Brafford, Vander Well’s transition into the starting setter role this year has been a perfect fit.

“Hobbs is very accurate, and she’s one of the more athletic setters I’ve played with,” Brafford said. “She doesn’t yell a lot, but she gets people excited.”

Vander Well filled in for an injured Berg on Oct. 27 last year, tallying 60 assists in a crucial five-game victory over Indiana.

Her first extensive Big Ten action, however, will come this weekend, and the setter with the Hollywood nickname is ready for the spotlight.

“It’s exciting for me to be able to play in the Big Ten,” she said. “I love being in front of a crowd in a big match, and I’m ready to show what I can do on that stage.”

The naturals always are.