Hebert stacks deck, plays right cards

Ben Goessling

The names loomed like giant redwood trees on Minnesota’s volleyball team’s schedule.

Pepperdine. Stanford. UCLA. Northern Iowa.

Minnesota’s volleyball team, coming off a modest 19-13 season and featuring only one senior, was slated to face four top-10 teams in the first two weeks of the season.

Never giving a second thought to the gauntlet his team was about to run, coach Mike Hebert brought his young squad into the 2002 season knowing the only way it would grow up quickly was to play the nation’s best.

“There are so many teams that just want 10 easy wins in the non-conference season,” Hebert said. “We’re shooting for more than that.”

So rather than taking 10 guaranteed wins against cupcake non-conference opponents and hoping a 10-10 Big Ten record would be enough to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, Hebert began to schedule tougher opponents in hopes the experience would boost the overall level of the program.

But the approach worked quicker than even Hebert thought.

The Gophers (10-2) are ranked eighth in the country after being picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten.

Minnesota is the nation’s surprise team, and will be viewed by many as the league favorites when the conference schedule begins Sept. 27 against Michigan State.

Recruiting jump

hebert said Minnesota’s increased exposure has already paid dividends during the fall recruiting season.

The Gophers match against Stanford in the season-opening State Farm Classic was broadcast nationally, and according to Hebert, several potential recruits have upped their interest in the program due to the exposure.

Meredith Nelson is one such recruit. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker from St. Croix Falls, Wisc., is listed as the 11th-best high-school player in the country by Volleyball Magazine.

Nelson, who had narrowed her choices down to Minnesota and Stanford, made a verbal commitment to the Gophers shortly after the State Farm Classic, according to Shareen Luze, an assistant coach for Nelson’s Kaepa Northern Lights club team.

Hebert is not allowed to comment on recruits until they have signed a national letter of intent.

Luze said Nelson’s decision was sealed after seeing the buzz generated by Minnesota’s participation in the State Farm Classic.

“It played a pretty significant role,” Luze said. “I think she was surprised at how much support there was in the community for Minnesota and the potential the team has.”

Nelson joins setter Kelly Bowman in the team’s 2003 recruiting class. Bowman, an Osseo, Minn., native, is ranked as the fourth-best player in the country by Volleyball Magazine and has also committed verbally to the Gophers.

Conference creampuffs

while Hebert’s scheduling philosophy has paid great dividends for Minnesota thus far, the Gophers conference foes have not rushed to take the same approach.

Michigan is the only other team in the Big Ten featuring more than two ranked teams on its non-conference schedule, and only five other teams face more than one ranked non-conference opponent.

By comparison, the Gophers will have played six ranked teams after this weekend’s University of Denver Tournament.

“Your first thought when scheduling should go to the type of team you have returning,” Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. “You can up the ante with an experienced team.”

Penn State played in three national championship games from 1997-99, winning the national title in 1999.

“We always wanted to play the top five or six teams back then,” Rose said. “It shows you if you are a one or a six.”

The ninth-ranked Lions will play their first ranked opponent this weekend when they take on third-ranked Florida.

Wisconsin head coach Pete Waite, last year’s Big Ten Coach of the Year, said his team’s light non-conference schedule – which included only one ranked opponent – has served the young Badgers well as they search to replace graduated All-Americans Lizzy Fitzgerald and Sherisa Livingston.

“We knew this would be a year we had to grow as a team, so we scheduled a lot of mid-level opponents,” Waite said. “We’ve been able to try a lot of different things.”

And while Hebert had to commit to this season’s brutal schedule several years ago, he couldn’t help but be pleasantly surprised with the way the gamble worked out.

“We figured that by 2002 we’d have a pretty solid program,” Hebert said. “We’re only three weeks removed from being nobody, but now we know we have a chance to contend in the Big Ten.”