Volleyball ready for start of Big Ten this weekend

Staff Reporter

Members of the Gophers volleyball team, start your engines. The warm-up season is over, and it’s time to start the race for the Big Ten championship.
And fans, this year’s field is a crowded one. The Big Ten is stacked with talent and is considered among the toughest conferences in the country.
But while many consider the Big Ten to be the best of the best, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said it is too early to give that distinction to the conference.
“All the Big Ten coaches right now are doing the same thing I’m doing,” Hebert said. “We are in our first week of pre-conference practice and we are all saying ‘Are we any good? Are they any good?'”
Hebert said nonconference games can’t judge the Big Ten elite, but he also said it won’t take long to separate the top teams from the those on the bottom.
“We will find out pretty soon,” he said. “I suspect that we are in for the same sort of battle we were in last year.”
Hebert was referring to Minnesota’s disappointing Big Ten showing last year, when the Gophers finished 7-13 in the conference and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.
Going into this weekend’s Big Ten affairs against Purdue and Wisconsin, the team has put last year behind them and is focusing on having a successful year.
“We’re confident,” Hebert said. “I think all of us who were here last year feel we’re a better team than last year. We have more depth. We have more experience. We’re better skilled.”
Although Hebert believes his team has improved from a year ago, he is wary that the conference as a whole has improved too.
“We may all have grown together equally over the past offseason,” he said.
Gophers setter Lindsey Berg likes Minnesota’s chances in the competitive conference.
“I think anything can happen,” Berg said. “Just by looking at the preseason scores of the other teams, it looks like the Big Ten is up for grabs this year and everyone’s going to be competing hard. I think we have a great chance.”
The Gophers will get that chance to prove they belong at the top of the Big Ten this weekend.
Minnesota will host two home games at the Sports Pavilion this weekend. Tonight’s is against their border nemesis, 13th-ranked Wisconsin.
Hebert said the Badgers will be an important early test for his team.
“We are playing what most people consider to be the second-best team in the conference,” he said.
Hebert conceded that last year’s NCAA runner-up, Penn State, is the team to beat in the Big Ten. The second-ranked Lions have won the last three Big Ten titles.
Wisconsin coach Pete Waite agrees with Hebert, saying the Big Ten is a very balanced conference.
“Top to bottom, the conference is very good,” Waite said. “Anyone can win on any given night.”
Waite, who is in his first year as coach of the Badgers, is anxious to start conference play.
And the Gophers are equally fired up for the season.
“Wisconsin is a great game to start off with,” Berg said. “Hopefully we’ll show them who we are.”

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