Challenging nonconference schedule part of plan for regular season success

In each season from 2001-2004, Minnesota played 14 top-25 opponents.

Mark Heise

When it comes to nonconference scheduling, the Minnesota volleyball team chooses a much different route than some programs.

Instead of the theory “pile on wins early” the Gophers try something else: playing the best.

Sophomore setter Rachel Hartmann explained the two different types of schedules for nonconference play.

“You can play the easy teams or you can take on a tougher schedule,” she said. “We’d rather have the competition – so we’re ready once the conference season begins.”

The Gophers are looking at a tough schedule this season. Not only will Minnesota be playing one match against top-ranked Nebraska and two against second-ranked Penn State, but they already have nine other matches scheduled against teams in the top 25. That number could increase depending on who they play in the postseason.

Coach Mike Hebert stressed for his team to be successful in the Big Ten, the nonconference matches are crucial. This will be especially true this season, as the conference boasts five of the top 25 teams in the nation according to the preseason polls.

“What we are trying to do is to become more resilient as a team,” Hebert explained. “What we don’t want is to be able to cruise past teams for the first few games, and then all of a sudden go into a Big Ten match and think, ‘Oh, we’re not ready for this.’ “

While this star-studded schedule has become common practice for the Gophers over the years, it is interesting to notice that some of the other top-tier teams don’t follow the same strategy.

For example, fourth-ranked Santa Clara will play just eight matches against teams in the top 25 this season; four of those are conference matches.

No. 6 Florida has scheduled only seven matches against this elite competition, four coming from its conference as well.

No. 12 Tennessee has the least of the group, playing just six matches against nationally ranked teams.

Eight top-25 opponents are paltry compared with the 14 top-25 teams Minnesota played in each season from 2001-2004. Those numbers include deep postseason runs in 2002 (Sweet 16), 2003 (Final Four) and 2004 (National Championship game).

Playing several top-ranked teams doesn’t seem to faze this year’s squad, however, as members seem to appreciate the role as the underdog.

“We don’t mind going out and having people think we’re going to lose,” senior outside hitter Kelly Bowman said. “We don’t have any pressure in that role, and it really doesn’t affect us on the court.”

Hebert said he believes in his strategy, and has set this same schedule every season. Although it has led to many successful seasons, even he can see one downside to it.

“I can sort of see how this would hurt our media relations a little bit,” he commented in closing. “Fans want to see us win in the preconference period, but if we want to succeed, we need better competition.”