Mallakis eager to step in when needed for U

Who is Athena Mallakis? With a name like Athena, is she a superhero of sorts? True, her mother named her after the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom.

So, is she a superhero? No. Goddess? Maybe, but not likely. She is, however, a second-year volleyball player at Minnesota.

And she is doing so with only four years of volleyball experience.

How likely is it the sophomore will make a strong impact on this year’s team? Coach Mike Hebert said it is very likely.

“Athena is all of a sudden our first player off the bench,” Hebert said. “She’s undersized, but lighting quick.”

Mallakis should receive ample playing time in. There are six starters in volleyball and they all need relief at some time during fast-paced games.

In addition, Minnesota is missing two of its middle blockers from last season: Bethany Brafford and Maggie Freiborg. Both left the team in the offseason.

“This was the year Bethany (Brafford) was going to be a senior,” Hebert said about the co-captain of last year’s team. “Losing her was just huge.”

Is Hebert expecting Mallakis to replace a captain (Brafford) and another middle blocker (Freiborg) all by herself? Probably not, but she could be a key fill-in for the starters.

Coaches were able to see some of this ability when Mallakis played on a club team during her late high school years. She averaged 4.01 kills and 2.67 blocks per match during her three seasons with the Thunder Volleyball Club in her home state, California.

But her mind was not always completely set on volleyball.

Mallakis was a freshman in high school, excited to play soccer for her school’s team when she was first introduced to competitive volleyball.

Enter Tuong Nyugen, Mallakis’ high school and club team coach.

Nyugen went to the 5-foot-11-inch freshman and practically insisted she play volleyball for him.

Mallakis decided she would give volleyball a try instead of playing soccer.

But things did not quite go as planned. Mallakis has dealt with two torn anterior cruciate ligaments over the past few years – missing half of her junior season and her whole senior season in high school, as well as sitting out last season with the Gophers.

So what’s going to make her a contributor to this year’s Minnesota volleyball team?

The Gophers’ seventh-year coach seems to have lots of confidence in her. Mallakis is especially looking forward to concentrating on being a middle blocker. Hebert is adamant about how vital the middle positions are.

“It’s important to have solid depth up the middle,” Hebert said.

Mallakis added, “I love the quickness of the middle attack.”

Mallakis recorded her first career block in the Gophers’ match against UCLA on Sunday in the Hawaiian Airlines Tournament, coming when Hebert was looking for something positive to happen – and as his team was losing matches in Hawaii.

The stop was the team’s first point after she entered the game.

Mallakis knows it’s just a start, but is excited for the team nonetheless.

“I really like the girls here,” Mallakis said. “They have a great sense of humor and are genuinely nice.”

Mallakis and the 13th-ranked Gophers (0-3) are hoping to enter the win column when they host the Nike Invitational tournament this weekend. Minnesota will begin by taking on Kansas at 7:30 p.m. Friday.