Freshmen, sophomores expected to lead U volleyball

by Sarah Mitchell

With a starting lineup comprised of two freshmen, three sophomores and just one senior, an expectation for a Minnesota volleyball run to greatness is premature.
But the recruitment of the young players has built a solid foundation for the program’s future, not to mention a 10-1 start to the 1998 season.
The sophomore tandem of Nicole Branagh and Sonja Posthuma team up at the outside hitter position.
Branagh led the Gophers last season with 478 kills and in doing so earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. The Orinda, Calif., native is ahead of pace this season, recording 201 kills already.
Co-captain Posthuma was second on the 1997 team with 375 kills. Hebert said the Netherlands native has been the most vocal member on the team so far.
“Posthuma seems to have the most impact on the team so far,” head coach Mike Hebert said. “She helps them get through the match.”
Freshmen Yvonne Wichert and Lindsey Berg have made veteran-like contributions to the team.
Wichert is known for her power at outside hitter. The native of Germany is second on the team with 138 kills.
Besides Posthuma, Wichert is the only other foreigner on the Gophers team. Besides adjusting to a more vigorous schedule, Wichert said she had to adjust to a different level of competition.
“It’s not a big deal,” Wichert said. “You have to practice with great effort and play with great effort. Then you can reach that level.”
Berg has been the most heralded of the freshman class. The setter was considered as one of the top volleyball recruits by USA Today and has lived up to that status.
The Hawaiian native’s jump serve and presence on the court made an immediate impact on the team’s performance. Berg leads the team with 25 serving aces.
Joining that starting core are senior outside hitter Jill McDonell and sophomore middle blocker Erica Glaser.
One strength of the Minnesota volleyball team might be the talent sitting on the bench. Freshman Stephanie Hagen vies for time at the middle blocker position and is what Hebert considers “our prized freshman recruit.” Hebert said for a newcomer, Hagen doesn’t compete like a rookie.
“She plays with the composure and the efficiency of a much older player,” Hebert said. “We only think she’s going to get better and better.”
While the younger players appear to be capable of leading Minnesota this year, a season-ending injury to a veteran might set the team back slightly.
Senior middle blocker Linda Shudlick tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a blocking drill. She led the 1997 Gophers volleyball team with a .305 hitting percentage and 126 blocks.
“She’s by far the team’s best blocker,” Hebert said. “Her blocking would stabilize our defensive effort.”
The absence of Shudlick was apparent on defense Saturday night during the team’s first loss of the season, a 3-2 loss to Auburn in championship match of the Diet Coke Classic. Auburn outblocked the Gophers 12-5 while accumulating a .362 hitting percentage.”
“We just got a taste (Saturday) of what the Big Ten is going to be like every night, and we are going to have to show up blocking and with defense if we are going to win,” Hebert said.
Being victorious in the Big Ten leaves no room for error as six conference foes were ranked in last week’s USA Today/American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 poll. Considered the toughest volleyball conference in the nation, precision and execution are a must.
Following the Gophers 7:30 p.m. match against the USA National team at the Sports Pavilion Monday night, Minnesota opens its Big Ten season at home against No. 1 Penn State on Friday night and No. 14 Ohio State on Saturday.
Hebert said the team begins preparation for the grueling opening matchups this week, adding that the team is excited to open the season against two nationally-ranked teams.
“We will be loose, with nothing to lose,” Hebert said.
The third year coach added that following the team’s loss to Auburn, the Gophers can no longer maintain their ranking.
“So much for the ranking,” Hebert said. “We were unable to wear that mantel very long, but that’s what happens in this game.”
With a home sweep this weekend, the young team might soon find itself among the nation’s elite.