olleyball earns No. 2 spot in preseason Big Ten poll

Staff Reporter

With the opening of the 2000 Minnesota volleyball season still more than a month away in Reno, Nev., Big Ten coaches are already placing their bets as to who will take this year’s conference championship.
Finishing just points behind NCAA champion Penn State in the preseason poll, the second place ranking for the Gophers reflects their impressive No. 2 finish in 1999.
It also is a sign of good things to come in 2000, as Minnesota returns five of six starters and has a strong incoming class for 2000.
But coach Mike Hebert claims the poll is useless in foreshadowing the outcome of any Big Ten team, let alone his own.
“The poll just doesn’t make any difference, it doesn’t mean anything towards who will win or lose,” Hebert said. “It’s a popularity contest at this point. If you get a high ranking in preseason it means coaches respect what you have accomplished and what you’re going to accomplish.”
Hebert has good reason to doubt the poll. Last year’s poll picked the Gophers to finish in sixth place.
Instead, they went on to defy the prediction by finishing second overall in the Big Ten and were among the record setting eight teams from the conference to play in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers were then defeated in the regional semifinals by the Lions.
Following the loss, Penn State coach Russ Rose proclaimed Minnesota the team to beat in the upcoming season.
Regardless of such compliments and the Gophers’ high preseason ranking this year, Hebert prefers to be in the underdog position even if it’s behind the former NCAA champions.
“Being the underdog is a much easier position to play from because not much is expected of you,” Hebert said. “We sure had the advantage of people not having high expectations of us, and it was a clear advantage to be without the pressure of a high ranking.
“I think any predictions by other coaches is just sandbagging and a way to take the pressure off their own team. It’s a smart coaching move.”
While the conference rankings are debatable, the picks for the preseason All-Big Ten team highlight players with a history of talent and experience.
Two members from the Gophers squad made the list: outside hitter Nicole Branagh and setter Lindsey Berg. Both were All-Big Ten selections in 1999, with Branagh also being recognized with a second-team All-American honor.
Echoing Hebert’s sentiments, Berg feels the selections hold no real weight with her or her teammates.
“I just go out and play and have a good time and do what’s best for the team,” Berg said. “I don’t feel any added pressure or expectations.
“Last year by being placed sixth it gave us the incentive to prove everybody wrong. But in this case we’re trying to win the Big Ten Championship, and no polls are going to stop us or get us down.”

[italic on]Monica Wright welcomes comments at [italic off][italic on][email protected][italic off]