Regulars will receive rest as spikers head to Denver

Ben Goessling

For Minnesota’s volleyball team, Christmas will not come on Dec. 25 this year.

It falls on Sept. 27.

That’s when Minnesota hosts 21st-ranked Michigan State to open its Big Ten schedule and gets its first chance to show the rest of the conference why it is the nation’s surprise team.

And for the eighth-ranked Gophers, each day brings the same sense of anticipation found in children awaiting their presents.

“This team is very much ready to open the Big Ten season,” coach Mike Hebert said. “The coaches and players have all been talking about taking the ‘road show’ into the conference.”

But before they can raise the curtain on the conference schedule, the “road show” must make a stop in Denver this weekend.

The eighth-ranked Gophers will travel to the University of Denver Tournament for matches against 19th-ranked Santa Clara, unbeaten Maryland and the hosting Pioneers.

While a banged-up Minnesota team will be looking first and foremost to stay healthy this weekend, Hebert said the tournament presents a good opportunity to “try some things one more time” before the conference season starts.

And in the No. 19 Broncos, Minnesota will see a quick, scrappy team resembling several of its Big Ten foes.

Unlike towering west coast teams like Stanford and UCLA, the Broncos will present a different challenge for Minnesota. The Broncos only have one player taller than 6-foot-1, but feature one of the country’s best setters in junior Kelli Sousa, who ranked seventh in the NCAA in assists last season.

“They’re a bunch of water bugs,” setter Lindsey Vander Well said of the Broncos. “They’re not a big team, but they don’t let too many balls hit the ground.”

The Gophers will likely rest libero Paula Gentil this weekend. Gentil, who sprained the medial collateral ligament in her right knee last weekend, has not practiced all week.

Hebert said the team will also lighten the load of opposite hitter Cassie Busse, who has played 39 of a possible 40 games this year.

“We can’t afford another injury,” Hebert said. “We’ve been backing off in practice, and we’ll probably give some people a rest this weekend.”

The Gophers aren’t planning to mail it in this weekend, however; the team feels it still has a statement to make before beginning the conference season.

The Gophers have only played away from the Sports Pavilion once this season. Minnesota won the Florida Atlantic Tournament Aug. 30-31, but faced nowhere near the level of competition it will see this weekend.

For a young team soon to be competing in the nation’s toughest arenas, it is most important they put the “road” in “road show.”

“We want to use this as a catapult into Big Tens,” middle blocker Bethany Brafford said. “We’re ready to see what we’re made of on the road.”

After all, Christmas is coming.