Axel passes into Gophers’ starting line

Minnesota volleyball player Lisa Axel won’t knock down 15 kills a match. She won’t set 45 assists, and she won’t block a lot of the opponents’ shots.
Game statistics don’t reveal Axel’s contributions. But on the court, her importance is revealed in the success of the 20th-ranked Gophers.
As only a freshman, Axel’s giant step from high school volleyball to the Big Ten has been an interesting wake-up call.
“You have to pay more attention during the game,” Axel said. “It goes a lot faster, and balls are hit a lot harder.”
In high school, Axel was a star. She was Minnesota’s 1998 “Ms. Volleyball.” So in stepping into a strong program like Minnesota, Axel has taken a back seat to some of her Gophers teammates.
“I knew coming in here I wouldn’t be the go-to player,” she said. “But I want to help out as much as I can.”
Help she has.
Axel has earned her playing time and, since her first start against Drake, she has quietly become a key to Minnesota’s passing and serving game.
“I can recall the match when we first started Axel,” Coach Mike Hebert said. “From that point on, our passing game took on a feeling of security and solidity, and she has been a major part of that ever since.”
But the adjustment has not come easy for the young player from Buffalo, Minn.
Last year, Axel suffered an injury to her left foot that required a pin and screw to be placed in one of her toes. She didn’t step on a court for six months, and the injury continues to slow her game.
“They won’t let me hit this year because of my foot,” Axel said. “But I know I can still help out in my role of ball control.”
Because of the injuries, Axel has been forced to switch from an outside hitter to a defensive specialist. Hebert said Axel’s presence has rewarded the team.
“It’s significant that a player in her first year — coming off a period of six months where she didn’t play any volleyball — can step into Division-I ball at this level and be as rock-solid as she has been,” he said.
Axel’s adjustment to the University has continued off the court as well.
“It’s pretty much eat, sleep, study and play volleyball,” she said. “I don’t really do much else right now. I don’t have a lot of free time.”
Hebert said Axel’s jump to college life on and off the court has been impressive.
“It is gratifying that someone this young can handle this kind of pressure with this kind of skill,” he said.
Junior Nicole Branagh was in Axel’s shoes two years ago and knows the adjustment can be hard. But Branagh roomed with Axel during the preseason and was able to prepare her for the step up to the Big Ten.
“It’s hard as a freshman because you don’t know what to expect,” Branagh said. “But she has come in great.”
Axel’s other teammates have noticed her presence as well — enough to the point where they dropped the Lisa from her name.
“I don’t even go by Lisa anymore,” Axel said. “If somebody says ‘Lisa,’ I don’t even answer.”

John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected].