V-ball players fight flu, prep for No. 8 Long Beach State

by Tim Klobuchar

The Gophers volleyball team pulled its greatest escape act of the year Wednesday against Central Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament, winning the match in five games after losing the first two.
But the Gophers know that to have any chance of beating No. 8 Long Beach State in the second round on Saturday, they’ll have to shelve their Houdini act until next season.
The only team that has made the 49ers look mortal this season is Big West conference rival Pacific, which has beaten them twice. Still, Long Beach State comes in with a 32-2 record and a lot of rest.
Minnesota, meanwhile, not only went the full five games with Central Florida with its thin roster, but with one player who has a sore back (Tara Baynes) and several others who had the flu. The one who was affected most was Katrien DeDecker.
DeDecker, with all her honors and records, still achieved a new level of toughness and respect by the end of Wednesday’s draining match.
“I’ve never seen Katrien DeDecker that out of energy,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. “She asked out of the match a few times, and that’s the first time I’ve seen her do that.”
DeDecker was not her usual overpowering self, but she delivered at the end of the match like she normally does. Her cross-court hit on match-point gave Minnesota the 17-15 victory in the fifth game.
“A lot of the players won’t say it, but they were running on fumes,” Hebert said. “We had some key players with very little energy. They were just out of gas. And for that reason, it was one of the most satisfying wins I’ve experienced in many years.”
The Gophers don’t have that much time to convalesce or gloat over the win — their plane to Long Beach, Calif., left Thursday night.
“A few of the players had finals this morning,” Hebert said. “It’s not an easy life. If you’re prescribing what to do if you’re sick, you don’t say go out for three or four hours in a high-pressure situation, then go home and study.”
The team’s health situationdoesn’t figure to improve significantly in the short amount of time before the next match, either.
“I’m expecting, somehow, our entire starting lineup will be on the floor,” he said. “But I worry a little bit. Tera Fiamengo has started to come down with (the flu), and Jane Passer hasn’t had it yet, so you wonder if she’ll be healthy. I just hope everyone can regain their strength.”
Even if the Gophers do come back at full strength, Long Beach State will still have a huge advantage.
“It would take a superb effort by us,” said Hebert, “and they would have to be at less than their best for us to have a chance to win.”
There is always that chance, however. Minnesota has beaten three ranked teams this year, including then-No. 10 Ohio State on the road last Saturday. And as they proved against Central Florida after falling behind 0-2, the Gophers have mastered the craft of beating the odds.
“If you don’t think you have a chance to win, there’s no point in going,” DeDecker said.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, this season has brimmed with endless surprises, leading to one of the most exciting years of Gophers volleyball in recent memory. Hebert was happy Minnesota was able to showcase in the NCAA tournament exactly what made its season unique.
“It was a wonderful comeback from a group that had to dig deeper than it had any time this season,” Hebert said.