Volleyball team happy with season but not with last match

Brian Stensaas

HONOLULU — The most successful season in Minnesota volleyball history came to a close Thursday night after a heartbreaking 3-1 loss to UC Santa Barbara in the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in Honolulu, Hawaii.
It was the second time in as many years the Gophers jumped the Pacific to play volleyball. Last season, Minnesota came to Honolulu and gave a lackluster performance in front of starting setter Lindsey Berg’s home crowd. The now-team captain was much more satisfied with the showing this season.
“This year we came out a lot better,” she said. “Overall, we played a lot better. The fans here in Hawaii are really great.”
The University of Hawaii crowd, most donned in Wahine green and awaiting the Hawaii-Long Beach State match to follow at the Stan Sheriff Center, gave minimal applause during player introductions Thursday night. But the Wahine faithful cheered warmly when Berg was announced.
While there were tears shed and minds left wondering ‘what if’ after the loss, it was also a time to reflect on what the team accomplished this season.
Less than three months after Minnesota lost to eventual national champion Penn State in the sweet 16 to end its 1999 campaign, Gophers assistant coach Maurice Batie died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Batie was the team’s key recruiter and brought Yvonne VanOort from Germany and Nicole Branagh from California. His passing left a huge hole not only on the bench, but also in the hearts of those who knew him.
The team paid tribute to its late coach by placing a dedication plaque in the Sports Pavilion in his honor before the Minnesota Classic in September and wearing “Mo” on the left sleeve of its jerseys all year long.
“He’s been in my mind through almost every point,” senior Lisa Aschenbrenner said before Minnesota opened play in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
While the Gophers lost Batie, they welcomed back a player they weren’t sure would return in VanOort.
The junior played up until the match with Penn State last season, needing to stop play due to her pregnancy. VanOort gave birth to a son, Niclas, on June 5 and was out playing in sand tournaments by the beginning of August.
She wore her Minnesota uniform for the first day of practice until Thursday night’s loss.
Minnesota finished the year 30-4, good for an .882 winning percentage; the best in school history in an NCAA season.
“These kids fought hard all season, and that includes tonight,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said after his team lost to the Gauchos. “Our goal was to win the Big Ten and it was one of our near misses. I think (the UCSB loss) was a near miss as well. To have a team be disappointed at not reaching the regional finals is a very big step forward.”
Playing in a Minnesota uniform for the last time were seniors Aschenbrenner, Branagh and Charnette Fair.
Fair put an exclamation point on her career as a Gopher by setting a career high for kills in her last match with 23. Meanwhile, Branagh finished the match with 19 and a dazzling 2,379 for her career – tops in Minnesota history, Big Ten history and sixth all-time in the nation.
“It’s very, very difficult to end this way,” Branagh said. “It’s been a great four years, it’s been so fun to be part of the process of watching this team grow.
“Four years ago, we were dreaming of being here and now we were actually doing it. It’s a great accomplishment.”

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]