Tourney gravy for Gophers volleyball

Just minutes before the Gophers volleyball team started play Wednesday night, women’s athletics director Chris Voelz made her rounds through the Sports Pavilion, with an eased look of contentment on her face.
The expression fit the occasion. The Gophers — with many of the same players from the team that trudged to an eighth-place, 7-13 finish in the Big Ten last year — were back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993. Voelz’s smile was expected.
But what was a bit surprising was her outlook. It could be argued that no one at the University puts a higher premium on winning than Voelz, as shown by her decision nearly two years ago to get rid of former volleyball coach Stephanie Schleuder. But Wednesday night, Voelz went into the match saying it didn’t really matter if Minnesota won.
“I hate to use the expression, but anything that happens from here is just icing on the cake,” Voelz said. “We could’ve just ended the year with being in the upper half of the Big Ten and that would’ve been proportionate to the progress we wanted. But this is just wonderful. Now, instead of ending the season with dot, dot, dot,’ we’re ending it with an exclamation point.”
Well, the Gophers’ season didn’t end last night, but they still managed to add a few exclamation points. After falling behind 0-2, Minnesota came back to beat Central Florida, 3-2. The final game, which the Gophers won, 17-15, provided some of the most exciting sports action this campus has seen in years.
Much of that excitement occurred because it appeared early that Minnesota didn’t have much of a chance to win — just as it appeared at the beginning of the season.
Even Voelz admits she didn’t think the Gophers would accomplish all they have this year. Yes, when Coach Mike Hebert was hired last December, Voelz made it clear she expected the program to progress to a higher level. And with Hebert’s impressive credentials (11 straight NCAA tournament appearances at Illinois and three Big Ten Coach of the Year awards) those expectations were warranted.
It appeared to be only a matter of time before the Sports Pavilion hosted December volleyball, the equivalent of October baseball and January football. It just wasn’t supposed to happen this December.
“He was a guarantee,” Voelz said. “That’s why we handed out the compensation that we did. We knew he would get us here; we just didn’t expect it to happen this fast.”
Thus far, Hebert has been worthy of his $86,300 annual salary. Since the first day of practice early this fall, Hebert has instilled a competitive, winning atmosphere. Every drill had an incentive to win. Every game was a chance to get better.
The players quickly took to Hebert’s teaching methods, and started believing in him and themselves.
“I think a key match for us was (Sep. 28) when we beat Ohio State the first time,” junior setter Becky Bauer said. “That proved it to ourselves that we can play with teams in that (top-20) category.”
Bauer, Katrien DeDecker and Jane Passer all spoke to the media with straight faces after Wednesday’s match and said everyone in their locker room always expected to win, even when they were down 0-2.
Few of the Gophers were able to maintain a positive attitude like that last season, when some of the players were looking forward to the end of the season. Hebert’s ability to motivate his players and draw heavily from what appeared to be a limited bench have proven to be his biggest assets. In fact, it’s hard not to question the selection of Penn State’s Russ Rose, not Hebert, as the 1996 Big Ten Coach of the Year.
But on Wednesday night, individual awards didn’t seem important. Voelz had nearly everything she could ask for: a winning team in the NCAA tournament, a proven coach, and pumped-up fans who stayed on their feet even through time-outs. A win at No. 8 Long Beach State on Saturday would send Minnesota to the tournament’s Sweet 16.
As it turned out, Wednesday’s win mattered quite a bit.