Gophers welcome quality field to tourney

Kent Erdahl

It’s official: Minnesota’s volleyball team is good.

Calling the fifth-ranked Gophers (4-1) “good” could end up being an understatement, but after the first two weeks Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said the team has established its identity as one of the best in the nation.

Minnesota looks to solidify that identity beginning tonight at the Sports Pavilion when it plays host to the Diet Coke Classic.

The tournament pits the Gophers against other top-tier teams, including one that could prove to be the highest-ranked opponent the Gophers face at home all year.

Minnesota faces No. 15 Kansas State (3-1) at 7 p.m. tonight, No. 4 Florida (4-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday and Northern Iowa (3-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday.

“I think we’re all looking forward to playing these highly-ranked teams,” Lindsey Taatjes said. “It exposes your weaknesses and gives you a better idea of where you’re at.”

The Gophers did their best to show where they’re at in the first two weeks of the season.

The team’s only loss came to No. 1 Southern California in five games. USC finished last season undefeated and knocked Minnesota out of the NCAA Tournament in the Final Four.

“The whole game we thought we had them,” Kelly Bowman said of this season’s match with the Trojans. “We could have beaten them in three games. We had them on the ropes, and they knew that we were the better team.”

After rolling through three lesser teams in straight games last weekend, the Gophers have a chance to prove they are indeed as good – or better – than a team such as USC this weekend, and next week in another tournament in North Carolina.

In the two-week stretch, Minnesota will face three teams currently ranked in the top 25 – the Gators and the Wildcats this weekend, and No. 22 Loyola Marymount next weekend.

“I will be looking to see if we can sustain the level of play we achieved on the road,” Hebert said. “I think we can, but if we can do it for another two weeks, then we’ll be able to take on the Big Ten conference.”

A look back and forward

The game tonight is the first in the Sports Pavilion since the team claimed its first Final Four appearance last December, and the Gophers plan to unveil a banner commemorating that run before the game.

Despite honoring this accomplishment, Hebert said, he is also looking ahead to this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota has the potential to play host to an NCAA Regional later this year, because the Sports Pavilion has been chosen as one of the NCAA Regional sites.

Hebert said the next two weeks of the Gophers’ schedule could determine if the team makes it into the top 16 for good. Only top-16 teams can play in their own facility for an NCAA Regional.

“It seems unusual to be talking about the NCAA Tournament so early in the season,” Hebert said. “But with the Big Ten schedule the way it is, the early matches are very important against seeded opponents who are likely to be tournament bound.”