The Gophers women’s basketball team, down to eight scholarship players, has the most notable labor shortage of any University athletic team. But it doesn’t have the only one.
The volleyball team started the year with 11 players on its roster and is now down to 10 because of an injury to back-up setter Michelle Miller.
Neither team can field enough players to have an intrasquad scrimmage. But while the basketball team’s fortunes don’t look to improve upon its winless Big Ten season a year ago, the volleyball team has done more with less.
The Gophers’ 19-8 record has surprised nearly everyone not only because of their lackluster 13-17 record last year, but because of another problem with numbers — there aren’t enough of them.
“In practice it’s hard to get tough competition,” Gophers junior setter Becky Bauer said. “We have to get our coaches and guys from the men’s team so we have enough. The other day we had the six starters on one side and the three subs on the other.”
Obviously, Gophers coach Mike Hebert would prefer not to run a practice like that, but he knows it’s the best way to give his team a chance to win.
“Here’s the dilemma,” Hebert said. “If we practice hard the way I normally would practice, we get beat up because we don’t have enough players, and then they’re questionable for the match. Or we save them during the week, and risk not being as prepared for the match. We’ve been trying to ride that fine line on a daily basis.”
The lack of depth has not only forced Hebert to run his practices differently, but also alter his match strategy in subtle ways that almost no one, other than he, realizes. In volleyball a substitute can play only one position per game. With his limited bench, Hebert has had to use his subs more judiciously than he would like.
“I think it’s helped us in a way,” said Gophers junior outside hitter Sarah Pearman. “Our team chemistry is tight because we have a smaller group to work with. Everyone wants to play, and pretty much everyone does.
“We’ve had to pull together this year, but we’re used to that. We’ve done that the last few years.”
Hebert said he wanted to rest Pearman (who is bothered by an injury to her right knee) during a match against Michigan on Nov. 8 but couldn’t because he didn’t have anyone on the bench who could play her position.
Sophomore middle blocker Tara Baynes has a back problem that still hinders her performance, and Bauer has a chronically sore right knee. The Gophers can’t afford to lose any of those three players, making the trainer’s job that much more important. And, according to Hebert, head trainer Patty Lacy deserves a trophy for her work this year.
“She’s really been put to the test this year,” he said. “And she’s passed with flying colors. When the MVP trophy goes out at the end of this year, it might go to her.”
Hebert has gotten much of the credit for turning the team around this year, so it’s not surprising that Lacy credits him, along with the players, for making her job easier.
“Mike Hebert knows exactly what he’s doing,” she said. “He knows how to properly train them with fundamentals and good mechanics. And the players are very dedicated to doing what’s necessary to maintain their health.”
Because the Gophers have been able to overcome their dearth of players and injuries, their surprise season all the more remarkable. It’s just one more reason to be shocked that Minnesota is just a few wins away from putting themselves in position to get a bid for the NCAA tournament. Of course, Hebert would trade the dramatic story line for a few more outside hitters off the bench.
“On the one hand it’s almost miraculous that we’re contending for an NCAA playoff berth with this situation,” Hebert said. “But it’s also extremely frustrating.”