Gophers look to live up to new Final Four precedent

Just one starter is gone from last year’s team, and that bodes well for the Gophers.

Kent Erdahl

Take a quick glimpse at the roster of Minnesota’s volleyball team this season, and you’ll find nearly all of the same players who carried the Gophers to their first Final Four appearance in program history.

Most of that team is back, including six seniors and five of six starters. But with the loss of the team’s biggest standout, All-American Cassie Busse, this Minnesota team is hardly a carbon copy of a year ago.

Minnesota coach Mike Hebert called Busse the Gophers “eraser” last season, because of her ability to erase mistakes made by the team. And when Hebert found Busse’s name erased from the starting lineup at the end of last year, he knew he’d have to make some changes.

Because of the Gophers’ wealth of experience, quality defensive and passing skills and the athletic play of last year’s freshman reserve setter Kelly Bowman, Hebert decided the best option was to implement a new offense.

“I try to get my best players on the court and develop a system that fits them,” Hebert said. “(Senior setter) Lindsey Taatjes and Kelly Bowman are two of our best volleyball players. We couldn’t have one of them sitting around all year on the bench.”

Instead, the Gophers worked on a two-setter offense – called a 6-2 – over the summer so that Taatjes and Bowman could complement each other on the floor.

So far, the change has complemented the entire team. The Gophers are 7-1 with three wins over nationally ranked opponents. Minnesota’s only loss came to No. 1 Southern California in five games.

The defense, led by two-time All-American libero Paula Gentil, continues to dominate opponents and has recorded more digs than every opponent this season.

The offense has also shown balance by spreading the ball around, which has made senior outside hitters Erin Martin and Trisha Bratford that much more effective.

“(Martin and Bratford) have been doing such a wonderful job that if we keep dishing the ball out to them, they’re going to keep killing it,” middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “After a while, opposing teams are going to camp blockers right on them, and that’s the time when we have to step it up and relieve some of the pressure on them.”

So far, Nelson and fellow middle blocker Jessica Byrnes have done just that, and Minnesota has consistently had three or four hitters record double-digit kills.

“It really shows how balanced our offense is now,” Martin said. “And I think we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with once the Big Ten season starts.”