Senior spiker helps chart course to Big Ten title

Ben Goessling

Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert was asked Tuesday who on his team he thought the team’s Big Ten title – the first in school history – meant the most to.

Hebert responded immediately.

“There’s no question this means the most for Lisa Axel,” he said. “To me, just seeing a smile on her face answers that question. She has paid some serious dues.”

Never heard of her? It is because teammates Cassie Busse, Erin Martin and Paula Gentil claim the majority of the headlines while Axel toils in relative anonymity, known only to her fan club on the north side of the Sports Pavilion.

“The Mighty Ax” is a defensive specialist for the sixth-ranked Gophers and the only senior on the team. She might be the most important cog on a squad which rose from a 19-13 campaign last year and a predicted sixth-place finish in the Big Ten to clinch a tie for the conference championship with four matches remaining.

In fact, Hebert might have added a new nickname to Axel’s credit on Tuesday.

“In a lot of ways she’s the rudder of our team,” he said. “She’s been in all the Big Ten buildings before. Her attitude is rock solid. All the players on our team just have this serene attitude around her. I might have to start calling her ‘rudder.’ “

In addition to being one of the team’s most solid defensive players, Axel has developed a shifty jump serve that has her ranked fifth in the conference in aces.

But Axel, never one to hog the limelight, is just happy to be along for the ride.

“The best thing about this season is being healthy,” said Axel, who has been hobbled so badly with persistent foot, knee and back injuries she has rarely practiced in her four years. “It’s hard to explain how wonderful it’s been.”

In 1999 and 2000, Axel’s first two years with the program, Minnesota rode the talents of all-Big Ten selections Nicole Branagh, Lindsey Berg and Stephanie Hagen to a combined 57-13 record and two trips to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.

After last year’s up-and-down 19-13 campaign, however, Axel returned to the University in August as the only senior on a team with more questions than an inquisitive first-grader.

“There was no one looking at us at the beginning of this year,” she said. “It’s great to have this after people weren’t expecting us to be good.”

On Saturday night, when Minnesota takes on Ohio State, the young team, who has grown under Axel’s steadying hand this season, will thank her as the team holds senior night at the Sports Pavilion.

And Axel, for once, will have the spotlight on her.

“I’m looking forward to this weekend, but I won’t want it to end,” she said. “I’ll just be trying to remember everything.”

If Axel is to be remembered at Minnesota, it will be as the one constant in a four-year period of transition from the mountaintop to the ground and back again.

Minnesota will likely be the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten next season – largely because many will underestimate the impact of losing Axel.

As usual, though, she is fine with letting her teammates receive all the attention.

“I’m excited for them,” she said. “To know I had a part in starting a tradition of contending for a title, that’s a pretty good legacy.”

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]