Gophers win Wyoming tournament

The team averaged 18.67 kills per game and Paula Gentil set a new career digs record.

by Kent Erdahl

Minnesota’s volleyball team had few remaining questions when it arrived in Laramie, Wyo., for its second tournament of the year over the weekend.

After all, the team had already proved that it deserved its No. 5 ranking two weeks ago at the NACWAA classic in Fort Collins, Colo., when the Gophers beat No. 11 Colorado State and nearly defeated No. 1 USC in five games.

But after sweeping all three of their matches in straight games and capturing the Wyoming Tournament championship, the Gophers showed that they could easily dispose of the opponents they are expected to.

Minnesota averaged 18.67 kills per game for the tournament, while holding Texas-San Antonio, Idaho State and Wyoming to a combined 10.11 average.

Although the victories weren’t necessarily against top-caliber programs, the tournament’s most valuable player, Erin Martin, said this past weekend’s victories proved more.

“It’s almost harder to go into a tournament like the one this weekend after being on the road for almost two weeks and having to play teams that we’re supposed to beat really easily,” said Martin, who recorded 42 kills in the tournament.

The Gophers stayed in Colorado the entire week before the Wyoming tournament instead of traveling back to Minnesota.

The decision paid off because the team actually had to play in higher elevation for the Wyoming tournament.

“When you walked down to the locker room (in Wyoming) there was a sign saying, ‘Welcome to 2,240 feet. How’s your oxygen?’ ” Paula Gentil said. “It was hard because we couldn’t breathe. We weren’t tired, we just couldn’t breathe.”

Gentil, who set Minnesota’s career digs record against Idaho State with her 1,292nd, said the elevation also caused the balls to float more than normal.

But the team didn’t seem to struggle with thin air in any of the matches. There were times when the Gophers trailed, especially against Wyoming in the championship, but Gentil said it was because they were unfamiliar with the teams.

“We didn’t have video on them or anything, so we had to adjust to anything they did really fast,” Gentil said.

The Gophers made the adjustments quickly thanks to the offense of Martin and middle hitters Meredith Nelson and Jessica Byrnes.

“Our middle attack has seen a significant improvement from last season, and it’s one of the reasons that we performed as well as we did,” coach Mike Hebert said. “(Nelson and Byrnes) are coming around faster than we thought, and we’re really happy with that.”

Hebert wasn’t the only one who recognized the contribution of Nelson and Byrnes. The two were named to the All-Tournament team alongside Martin.

The Gophers also relied on their defense and ball movement, which has been a strength so far this season.

“We’ve only had four aces against us in the first five matches,” Hebert said. “That’s just an unbelievable statistic. Our ball control, passing and digging have been just outstanding.”

With such a balanced attack and great team performances, Hebert said, he is glad to stop with the questions.

“You always open up wondering whether you’re going to be any good,” Hebert said. “We clearly proved to ourselves that we can play at a high level.”