Spikers open season with tourney sweep

by Brian Stensaas

Coming off a 27-win season in which the Minnesota volleyball team finished as one of the final 16 teams in the nation, expectations are running high for the 2000 campaign.
The Gophers return five starters to the court this year, three of whom have all-Big Ten status to their credit.
And after last weekend, the expectations slowly began to become reality.
Minnesota, ranked 11th in the country, had little trouble in the West this weekend, winning the Silver Legacy/Ray Wersching Invitational in Reno, Nev. The Gophers finished the weekend a perfect 3-0.
Coach Mike Hebert, although pleased with the showing, said Minnesota had plenty of room to improve.
“We played steady and solid, but that was this weekend,” he said. “We got soft on some of our serves and need improvement in some defensive areas.”
Hebert was impressed with his team’s ability to scramble in tough situations.
Hebert explained the two chapters of volleyball: when the ball goes where it is supposed to and “when you have to make order of chaos.”
“It was a very good step forward for us,” Hebert said of the impromptu play.
Saturday night in the tournament final, Minnesota faced its toughest test of the weekend against host Nevada, winning 15-9, 15-6, 15-9. The Wolf Pack’s only true chance came in the third game after they jumped out to a 4-1 lead. But Nicole Branagh’s five-point serve started a 12-1 run for the Gophers.
Branagh led the team with 15 kills, while Charnette Fair and Stephanie Hagen chipped in with 13 and 12 kills, respectively. Lindsey Berg had 47 assists, adding to her team overall record.
Saturday’s early game pitted Minnesota against California and featured a slew of scoring runs for the Gophers.
The Golden Bears sported an early 3-0 lead in the first game and led it 5-4 before Minnesota scored the final 11 points to claim the first game. In the second tilt, the two teams seesawed to a 5-5 knot before Minnesota scored 10 of the final 11 points for the win. In the third, Minnesota took off to an 11-point lead and a 15-5 win.
Hebert was impressed with the comebacks.
“I thought we responded well to the pressure situations,” he said. “These weren’t top 20 teams, but they weren’t bad teams, either. We were able to hold off their push and battle back nicely.”
Branagh again led the team in kills with 16, while Hagen had 14. Lindsey Berg once again finished the match with 47 assists.
In the first game of the tournament Friday night, Minnesota did battle with Kent State and took an easy 15-0, 15-3, 15-6 win. The match was highlighted by an 11-minute first-game win.
Branagh was named the tournament MVP for her 42 kills in the three matches with just five errors. She joined Berg and Hagen on the all-tournament team.
For team captain Berg, the weekend was a confidence booster.
“Everybody came ready to play here, and it was a great start for us,” she said. “I would say that we played consistently and confidently, and we never broke down no matter what.”
Before the season even started, Hebert began stressing teamwork. In two of the three matches played this weekend, Minnesota had three players in double figures for kills.
“We’ll know more in this coming week, but this weekend we played at a level that we need to be at to be successful.”
The Gophers will get their next opportunity to show their stuff Thursday night when they take on Georgia State before partaking in the Georgia Tech tournament Friday and Saturday.
Hebert knows fans will expect more this season and welcomes the challenge.
“We don’t mind (the expectations), and we are dedicated to standing up and meeting them.”

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