Gophers volleyball coach Mike Hebert was talking in front of his team as practice began Thursday when he tossed something at Katrien DeDecker.
The object turned out to be a black T-shirt wrapped in plastic, and it was an award. It’s given periodically to the player who accumulates the most points in a series of practice drills. Hebert said he likes to use it as extra motivation.
DeDecker caught the shirt, accepted a polite round of applause from her teammates with a smile, and immediately ran to the scorer’s table to put the shirt away.
DeDecker treats honors of far greater significance almost as nonchalantly. She’s just 29 kills away from 2,000 for her career, a milestone she will most likely surpass this weekend when the Gophers host Indiana and Purdue.
“It’s fun, but it’s not the focus,” she said. “If the team’s doing well, then I’ll probably do well. It’s something that will be more fun to look back at a couple years from now and see my accomplishments.”
After she passes 2,000, the next big number is 2,140 — the number of kills former Gopher Andrea Gonzales had, and the most in Big Ten history.
But of greater importance to DeDecker, of course, is the continued success of the Gophers. Minnesota is 13-6 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend.
The Gophers are coming off a 3-1 road trip, but are nonetheless more than happy to be back at home. When compared to the rigors of the road, home matches are almost like a breather.
“Athletic travel can be highly stressful,” Hebert said. “Then you add the academic load, and it gets to be pretty difficult.”
In terms of hostility, volleyball fans usually don’t have quite the bile of Yankees fans, but the Gophers will still be glad to see some familiar faces rooting for them.
“It’s always nice to play in front of family and friends,” said Gophers senior Tera Fiamengo. “Normally we don’t hear the crowd as much, but it’s nice to know the majority of the people in the stands are on your side.”
Indiana, after going 20-14 last year, has struggled this year. The Hoosiers are 7-11, and only 1-5 in the Big Ten. Purdue is off to a decent start at 10-8, and its 3-3 record in the conference puts them one game behind Minnesota. Both matches are very winnable for the Gophers.
Despite its strong start, Minnesota knows it’s nowhere near the elite status that would allow it to simply dismiss lesser opponents as if swatting flies.
“Either team can beat us 3-0,” Hebert said. “The Big Ten is just too balanced.”
Hebert singled out Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin (all teams that have been ranked in the nation’s top 10 this year) as the only three teams in the Big Ten that can win on sheer talent.
Teams in the second tier, such as Minnesota, need to have everyone healthy and playing well all the time to win. So far, several Gophers have played through nagging injuries but none have missed regular season time because of them. That’s fortunate, because Minnesota is shallow at a few positions, most notably outside hitter.
And sometimes, the difference is even more subtle. Hebert noted that Indiana has already lost several close matches this year, while the Gophers have won a few nail-biters.
“We’ve had some breaks this year,” Hebert said. “We had some in the Iowa match (a match Minnesota came back to win after falling behind 2-0), and I thought we earned the wins over Illinois and Michigan.”