Season still a success despite disappointing Elite Eight end

The Gophers let a two-game lead slip away and lost to Nebraska in five games in the Elite Eight.

Mark Heise

After a disappointing end to the 2005 season, the Minnesota volleyball team seemed anxious to get back on the right track for 2006.

The Gophers got things started well ahead of schedule, playing in Europe over the summer and improving their chemistry while there.

Senior outside hitter Kelly Bowman credited that trip for much of the season’s success.

“We had a great experience together in Europe,” she said. “It really helped us to gel as a team after a little bit of a letdown last year.”

But, despite the summer experience, the season began slowly for Minnesota. The Gophers were short on senior leadership, missing

Bowman and libero Malama Peniata because of suspensions for an NCAA rules violation.

Minnesota’s record dropped to 2-4 before the squad returned to full strength, but, aside from the rocky start, the absence of players appeared to be more of a blessing in disguise for the team.

“As much as it sucked for (Peniata) and me to have to sit out, it helped give some other players a chance to show they were ready to help out,” Bowman said. “Even though some of the matches didn’t turn out the way we wanted them to, I think we made a lot of big steps as a team because of that.”

With a full complement of players, the team went on a streak, winning 14 of its next 15 matches to set themselves up for a midseason showdown with Penn State, battling for the top spot in the conference.

“Nobody ever explicitly stated that we had a shot at the Big Ten title, but we all knew that in the back of our minds. That was what we wanted to accomplish,” senior middle blocker Meredith Nelson said. “We knew we were a good team and, if we continued to play well, we were capable of competing with anybody.”

The Gophers proved that statement, taking second-ranked Penn State to five games before losing their upset bid. The chance at a conference title died two matches later, when Minnesota was upset by Michigan, giving the Gophers the closest thing they had to a mid-season slump.

“I think Michigan was kind of a warning signal to us,” Nelson said. “We knew we didn’t play well that night and used it as a point to refocus. We kept that focus and were able to finish the season off strong.”

Minnesota found its way into the Regional Finals with a key win over Florida, and baffled top-ranked Nebraska for two games before ending the season with a five-game loss.

“We knew we had a chance to beat Nebraska and we played with a lot of heart,” Bowman said. “I’m not disappointed that we lost, but I’m sad that I won’t get to play with this team anymore, because it was a great team to be around.”

Losing Bowman, Nelson, Peniata and outside hitter Meghan Cumpston to graduation will be tough to overcome next year, but coach Mike Hebert still expressed confidence going into next season.

“This year’s team had a lot of experience together and that’s what was missing in 2005,” he said. “But I think next year will be another solid season.

“We have a lot of talent left behind and we have a lot of talent coming in to hopefully plug some of the holes left by the absence of our seniors.”