Ocean sickness: Dominant Pac-10 awaits

Minnesota plays a trio of West Coast teams in Long Beach despite the rise of the Big Ten.

Aaron Blake

Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert might have shushed senior Erin Martin on Saturday when she began to fume about the lack of respect for Midwest teams on the West Coast.

“I’m guessing they’re favoring (the other teams) because they always favor the West Coast teams, because we’re just the little homegrown Midwest girls and we don’t know how to play volleyball,” Martin said before Hebert gently suggested she refrain.

But it’s hard to blame Martin for her truncated diatribe. Even as the fourth-ranked Gophers stand the highest remaining seed and the only top seed to survive regionals, history and the Pacific Ocean are staring them straight in the faces.

Shortly after Martin spoke her piece, Washington beat UCLA in the Seattle Regional to round out the Final Four as the third Pac-10 team.

Minnesota’s trip to Long Beach, Calif., is appropriate in that way – the Gophers are going to have to pry a national title from the limp hands of Southern California, Stanford and Washington, just an overanxious kill away from the ocean that has meant so much in their sport.

In fact, 19 of the 23 NCAA volleyball titles have been won by schools in California or Hawaii. The aberrations: Texas’ title in 1988, Nebraska’s pair in 1995 and 2000, and Penn State’s 1999 campaign.

Hebert had spoken before the tournament about the emergence of the Big Ten. After all, Minnesota, Penn State and Ohio State earned three of the top five seeds.

And, of course, here he finds himself in the Final Four with three Pac-10 teams.

But Hebert said he’s not ready to re-evaluate that conclusion.

“I think the seeding of the teams from the Pac-10 and the Big Ten have as much to do with the result that we see in the Final Four as anything else – not necessarily the strength of the conference,” Herbert said.

“There were still several statements in the tournament that uphold the view that, at least, the balance of power is shared between the West Coast and the Midwest.”

But because the Gophers are the only remaining Big Ten team and the tournament is in Long Beach, they are in a familiar position – underdogs.

At least to everyone but themselves.

“We know we can do it, and that’s all that counts,” junior libero Paula Gentil said. “We don’t really care if the Pac-10 schools or coaches or community or people from the West Coast don’t think we can do it. That’s their problem.”

And it very well might end up being their problem. Minnesota has the luxury of putting its best team in the history of the program in a Final Four without a dominant team.

Last year, an undefeated Southern California team that sent Minnesota home in the semifinals went on to dust Florida in the final to finish the season 35-0. And no national champion since 1991 has lost more than two matches in its title season.

But the seventh-seeded Huskies, eighth-seeded Trojans and 11th-seeded Cardinal are anything but favorites, and the Gophers would like nothing better than to leave all of them on the beach and head back to the Great Lakes with the title.

Even the Gophers’ Brazilian transplant can sympathize with that.

“I wouldn’t say it’s discrimination against Midwest schools,” Gentil said. “But they don’t think we know how to play volleyball. But I think they’re wrong, and we just want to go out there and show them they’re wrong.”