Volleyball wins thriller at Pavilion

by Tim Klobuchar

Forget that Central Florida won the first two games of Wednesday night’s first-round NCAA tournament match with Minnesota. Forget that the Gophers had one player who almost couldn’t play because of injury, and another whose energy was sapped because of illness.
If only the Knights had known more about this year’s Gophers, they would have realized they were actually closer to losing than they were to winning. If only they had known that this was how Minnesota thrives, it might have taken some of the shock away from falling victim to another Minnesota rally. That rally eventually became a victory for the Gophers in a tremendous five-game match at the Sports Pavilion
The two-game deficit was only the beginning of Minnesota’s problems. Several of the Gophers were still suffering from the flu, and the sickest of them all was senior outside hitter Katrien DeDecker, the player Minnesota could least afford to be without. Sophomore middle blocker Tara Baynes was playing with a bad back, and was not cleared to play until shortly before match-time.
With most teams, all those factors going against them invariably spell doom. In the Gophers’ case, however, every step Central Florida took towards a win actually made their eventual defeat all the more inevitable. That’s how the Gophers have worked this year.
In a season that wasn’t supposed to amount to much, Minnesota has continually ignored what should happen, and Wednesday’s match was its crown jewel in a spectacularly surprising season.
The Gophers began their comeback by winning a third game they almost lost, 15-12, then followed that with a relatively easy 15-9 win in game four. That set up the dramatic fifth game, although to Gophers players, coaches and fans, maybe it wasn’t so dramatic at all. They knew they would win it.
And of course it had to be DeDecker, the most steady Minnesota player of all this year, who would finally put the Knights away with a spike that barely stayed in bounds, giving the Gophers game five 17-15 and the match.
The win propelled Minnesota (24-10) into the second round of the tournament, where they will play at No. 8 Long Beach State on Saturday night. Central Florida, champions of the Trans America Athletic Conference, ended its season at 23-13.
“I’m extremely proud of that comeback,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. “That match reflects our entire season.”
Minnesota came out extremely shaky, losing the first two games 15-8 and 15-12.
“I think a little of that was due to nerves,” said Gophers junior Jane Passer, who had one of her strongest matches of the year, slamming 17 kills. “It is the NCAA tournament. “We just had to settle down a little.”
The Gophers took advantage of the 10-minute break between the second and third games and jumped out to a big lead in game three. They led 14-7, then withstood a UCF rally, eventually winning 15-12.
“In our locker room, nothing is ever too bleak,” Hebert said.
The Gophers won game four easily, thanks in great part to their blocking. They had seven of their 15 team blocks in the game, frustrating the Knights.
Minnesota took a 14-11 lead in the fifth game, which was played with rally scoring (a point is scored on every serve). UCF ran off three quick points to tie the game, but key kills from Baynes, who became more effective as the match went on, and DeDecker gave the Gophers the victory they expected all along.
“We’ve done it before,” Gophers junior setter Becky Bauer said. “That gave us every idea we could do it again.”

UCF 15 15 12 9 15 — 2
Gophers 8 12 15 15 17 — 3

Leaders — Kills: DeDecker 17, Passer 17, Baynes 13, Pearman 13, Fiamengo 12. Digs: Bauer 22, Passer 18, Fiamengo 15, Pearman 15, DeDecker 12. Assists: Bauer 61.
T — 2:38. A — 1,785.