Gophers rise to top of national rankings

Losses by the top four teams this weekend opened the door. Now the Gophers are No. 1.

Kent Erdahl

For the first time in Minnesota volleyball history, the Gophers are No. 1.

This week’s USA Today/CSTV Top 25 Coaches Poll, released Monday, ranks Minnesota as the best volleyball team in the nation.

The poll, conducted by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, and voted on by Division I coaches, lists Minnesota just ahead of last year’s NCAA national champion, Southern California.

The ascension comes after a bizarre weekend in which the top four teams – Southern California, Nebraska, UCLA and Florida – all fell to lower-ranked opponents.

Minnesota, previously ranked No. 5, was the lone survivor. The Gophers beat Kansas State, Florida and Northern Iowa at the Diet Coke Classic over the weekend.

Kansas State and Florida were ranked No. 15 and 4, respectively, at the time.

The Gophers’ previous highest-ranking was No. 4, which came after last season’s run their first Final Four.

“The attention is nice. It’s gratifying, rewarding and all those sorts of cliche adjectives,” Hebert said. “Obviously it means nothing when it comes time to play somebody. But it is a nice gesture from the volleyball community.”

The ranking marks the first time in 22 weeks that a team besides Southern California has been No. 1.

And, although Illinois snapped the Trojans’ 52-match winning streak, Southern California still finished a close second in first-place votes.

The Gophers (7-1) received 31 votes, while the Trojans (5-1) tallied 22. The next closest was No. 3 Washington (6-0) with seven.

The Gophers’ only loss came at the hands of the Trojans in a close five-game match earlier this season. Hebert said the Gophers are probably ranked higher because of a shift in the way the poll rates the teams.

“I think there’s a little bit of a bias toward the reputation of the west coast teams,” Hebert said. “But I think there’s a growing sophistication among the voting coaches that tends to reward the teams that are actually playing well from week to week.”

The Gophers were clearly the best team last weekend, disposing of their two ranked opponents in long five-game matches on consecutive nights, and gutting out a win over a rival Sunday.

Hebert said Minnesota’s play, along with that of the teams that lost, made the decision easy – at least for him.

“I voted us No. 1,” Hebert said. “Had it been another team at five, and the first four lost, I would have pushed them up based on the week’s performance.”

Hebert said it won’t be easy living up to the new expectations, but he said he isn’t worried about the Gophers being overconfident.

Although Minnesota survived last weekend, Hebert said the team still knows it has a long way to go.

“To be rewarded with the ranking is a bit incongruous with how we actually feel right now,” Hebert said. “Our offensive rhythm just never appeared this past weekend, and yet we still managed to win. In the traditional coach talk, we still have so much work to do in the gym to play at the level we think we can.”