With stone-cold sincerity in his voice, Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert wasted no time expressing how much confidence he has in his Gophers at Tuesday’s team media day.
“This is the deepest collection of talent we’ve had here in my 12 years coaching at Minnesota,” he said.
And make no mistake, he’s had talent.
Enough talent to finish third or better in the Big Ten seven times, including a conference title in 2002.
Enough talent to register back-to-back NCAA Final Four appearances in 2003 and 2004.
And certainly enough talent to register a .765 winning percentage in NCAA tournament play over the past five seasons.
But as Hebert announced that at this stage in his career he’s more interested in winning a championship than just merely winning, he visibly showed optimism toward the group he’ll lead on the court in 2007.
That’s because No. 9 Minnesota not only has a solid returning cast from a 28-6 team last year, but also added the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation.
Two in-state freshmen – Cretin-Durham middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer and Kennedy outside hitter Brook Dieter – lead that impressive class. Hebert immediately showered the two with compliments and expectations.
“(Gibbemeyer’s) already a polished player and could possibly be the best middle blocker to play at Minnesota,” he said. “(Dieter) is one of the best athletes we’ve had.”
But talk and expectations don’t go far without a team ready to back it up, and the Gophers will have ample opportunities to do so well before their Big Ten opener against Purdue Sept. 21.
Minnesota plays San Diego, California and Stanford in its nonconference schedule, all within the first two weeks of the season – three teams in the USA Today/CSTV top 25.
And with conference foe Penn State predicted to be as tough as it’s been in recent seasons, there will be no easy road for the Gophers toward another NCAA Final Four berth in Sacramento, Calif.
But senior middle blocker Jessy Jones shares her coach’s ambitions, saying Minnesota will be playing for a national title.
“We’re dreaming big,” Jones said. “My career started playing at Long Beach (Calif., at the 2004 NCAA national championship game) and I have every intention it will end playing in Sacramento.”
She said she embraces the difficult nonconference schedule early in the season because it gives the team an opportunity to prepare for a grueling Big Ten schedule. A conference marathon that she said is competitive night in and night out.
“We might need to get our first five-set match out of the way that might not go our way,” Jones said. “It’ll be good for us – our conference is insanely competitive.”
By taking a public leap toward declared success, the Gophers opened up lofty goals for a team that houses five freshmen and two seniors.
But in terms of having a cohesive group heading into the 2007 campaign, team members agreed from top to bottom this squad has a collective goal of unity that past teams lacked.
“In previous years I saw separation,” Jones said. “There’s no separation with this team. I don’t see it doing anything but helping us.”
And by working together, junior setter Rachel Hartmann said the team is showing potential in practice to live up to its high aspirations.
“We’re really trying to compete hard, even at practice,” Hartmann said. “We’ve got to keep competing, even on days when practices don’t go well Ö I think we have what it takes.”