Spikers clinch share of first Big Ten title

by Ben Goessling

When Mike Hebert left Illinois’ volleyball team – which he led to four Big Ten titles and two Final Fours – for a reeling Minnesota program in 1996, he raised more than a few eyebrows.

Six years later, instead of raising eyebrows, Hebert will raise a Big Ten championship trophy.

Minnesota’s sixth-ranked volleyball team clinched a tie – its first Big Ten title – on Saturday night by defeating Michigan State in four games to complete a weekend sweep of the Spartans and Michigan.

“It only means everything in the world,” Hebert said. “It was a controversial decision for me to come here, and no one expected much of this team. The personal gratification is enormous.”

The Gophers, who gave Michigan its first home loss of the season and Michigan State its second, are the only non-Michigan team to win in the state this season. The Wolverines defeated the Spartans at home on Oct. 30.

Minnesota (28-3, 15-1 Big Ten) hit just .251 for the weekend and was outblocked in both matches, but it posted 53 more digs than its opponents.

The Wolverines and Spartans hit .154 and .174, respectively, making them the fifth and sixth opponents Minnesota has held under .200 in its last seven matches.

“A major part of our success has been holding teams under a .200 attack percentage, and we’ve been working on a lot more defense coordination in practice,” Hebert said. “Both matches were won on defense.”

Minnesota can clinch the conference title next weekend with a win or a Penn State loss, but don’t expect the Gophers to close up shop until the NCAA tournament starts.

“We’re excited, but there are still four more matches to go,” said outside hitter Cassie Busse, amidst a jubilant group of teammates. “It won’t be hard to focus. We’re only four matches into our new season.”

Hebert declared last weekend’s matches against Northwestern and Wisconsin the start of a new season, telling his team its record was now 0-0 and admonishing the Gophers to forget about everything they had done to that point.

The approach seems to have created a focused squad thus far, but forgive the Gophers if they get a little sentimental after making school history.

“When I got here in August for practice, I knew nobody could stop us,” libero Paula Gentil said of a team which was picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten. “We came together as a team, and the wins are just consequences of that.”

Men’s cross country

minnesota men’s cross country team finished second at the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships on Saturday, extending its streak of consecutive NCAA Championship appearances to six.

Junior Andrew Carlson claimed the individual title, covering the 10K course in a career-best 29 minutes, 56.82 seconds. Iowa won the meet with a score of 79, while the Gophers finished second with 93 points.

Carlson’s time was the third-fastest in school history and the fastest Gopher clocking since Dave Morrison ran a 29:45.4 10K at the District 4 championships in 1984. Minnesota head coach Steve Plasencia holds the school record at 29:26.6, set at the NCAA Championships in 1976.

“I took an early spill at the 2K mark but was able to get up, gather myself quickly and get back into the race,” Carlson said in a release. “With about 1K to go, I realized I was in position to win the race and made my move. I was able to hang on for the win.”

Freshman Ryan Malmin had an impressive performance for the Gophers, finishing in 10th place, followed by Ryan Ford, who placed 24th.

Carlson, Malmin and Ford were named to the All-Midwest Region team, while Andrew McKessock narrowly missed the honor. It was the second straight year Carlson was named all-region.

Minnesota will next be in action Nov. 25, when the Gophers travel to Terre Haute, Ind., to compete in their school-record sixth straight NCAA Championships.

Men’s swimming

minnesota men’s swimming head coach Dennis Dale announced that Andrew VanMeter, from Ames, Iowa, has signed a National Letter of Intent and will join the Gopher men’s swim team for the 2003-04 season.

For the past two years, VanMeter was the recipient of the Iowa High School Swim Coaches Association’s Athlete of the Year award.

Women’s cross country

minnesota’s women’s cross country team finished fifth at the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships on Saturday in Normal, Ill. Darja Vasiljeva placed fifth individually, covering the 6K course in a career-best 20 minutes, 49.77 seconds. The Gophers finished fifth with 199 points.

Vasiljeva’s time was the fastest in school history, breaking her own record set at the 2000 Midwest Regional, which was 20:54. Her finish earned her all-region honors.

The Gophers’ streak of five straight NCAA Championships appearances was ended with their fifth-place finish. Vasiljeva will compete in the NCAA Championships as an individual. The meet is Nov. 25 in Terre Haute, Ind.