Volleyball courts wins

by Brian Frederick

The Gophers volleyball team left earlier this month for a preseason training trip to Japan with hopes of building team unity and learning more about the Japanese game, which is played at a much faster tempo and focuses on ball control.
But coach Mike Hebert, who’s entering his third season at Minnesota, is also hoping the trip can be used to answer some lingering questions about the team before the Gophers return home in late August.
After making the second round of the NCAA Tournament and posting a 23-10 record in 1997, the Gophers volleyball team has high expectations for this season.
But to meet those expectations, Minnesota will have to overcome the loss of key players to graduation and injury.
Setter Becky Bauer ended her Gophers career second on the all-time Big Ten assists list. Replacing her will be an important factor in the Gophers plan on making another trip in the postseason — to the NCAA Tournament.
Along with Bauer, the Gophers lost two other starters, Jane Passer and Sarah Pearman, but do return eight letterwinners from the 1997 squad, including preseason All-Big Ten selection Nicole Branagh.
So replacing those three might have been easier than it looked — until the Gophers lost middle blockers Tara Baynes, who retired from the sport due to shoulder and back injuries, and co-captain Linda Shudlick, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in spring practice. The two were expected to solidify the Gophers in the middle.
Now Minnesota will have to rely on a younger core of players — Susan Shudlick, Branagh and co-captain Sonja Posthuma — for leadership on and off the court.
Shudlick, one of two Gophers who remain from the pre-Hebert era, is expected to replace Bauer at setter. She has worked as Bauer’s understudy for the past two years and should be able to step in without much of a problem.
But Shudlick will be pushed by three-time Hawaii co-player of the year Lindsey Berg. Hebert said Berg’s court savvy will be a valuable asset to a team searching for more talent.
Branagh, an honorable mention All-Big Ten in 1997, ranked third in the Big Ten with 4.47 kills per game. She will be paired pair with Posthuma at outside hitter. The two combined for 45 percent of the team’s kills in 1997. If the duo can repeat that performance, Minnesota may finally work its way into the national elite.
That’s not to say there aren’t any holes in the Gophers lineup. With only one senior on the roster — outside hitter Jill McDonell — the Gophers are a young team, and should be more of a force in years to come.
The biggest questions remain at the middle blocker. The injuries to Baynes and Linda Shudlick will hurt the Gophers’ chances to take a shot at defending conference champions Penn State and Wisconsin.
The team hopes that Heather Baxter and Erica Glaser can fill the void. Both played consistently in 1997, and each have some court experience necessary to be successful in the Big Ten.
Making the jump to the top of the Big Ten standings will be difficult in 1998. Penn State — the top-ranked team in the preseason — Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State are all in the Top 25. In addition, the Gophers placed only fifth in the preseason Big Ten Coaches’ Poll.
Playing a tough Big Ten schedule and advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons Hebert has been with the program provides a solid test for what lies ahead for the Gophers program.
— compiled from various sources