Solid defense core is reason for success

Peniata and Tan have combined for 40 services aces this season.

Mark Heise

In the Minnesota volleyball program, it’s always been all about the defense.

The Gophers have thrived with several defensive-minded teams over the years and, with this year’s backcourt tandem of senior libero Malama Peniata and freshman defensive specialist Christine Tan leading the way, this season has turned into another success.

Tan averages 2.5 digs per game for Minnesota while only playing halfway through the rotation. Peniata leads the team with 5.5 digs per game and the two play an integral role in holding opponents to a hitting percentage of just .175.

Add in a combined 40 aces from the duo and the Gophers’ 10-2 conference record begins to make sense.

Coach Mike Hebert has always been a believer in focusing on defense and mentioned his satisfaction in the pair’s play this season. Hebert said he feels that quality defense is what makes the game easier.

“If you play solid defense, you give yourself a better chance to win,” he said. “If you only play well offensively and don’t play defense, it’s a much more difficult proposition. Defense is the anchor of any system of play.”

And with help from quality blocking, Tan and Peniata have been able to provide that anchor.

Peniata praised the front line, giving them plenty of credit for the defense’s achievements.

“Week in and week out, you can always count on our defense,” she said. “Our blockers have matured over the past year and have made our job easier in the backcourt. Our defense has definitely stepped it up this season and we’ve been able to hold off most of the Big Ten teams.”

As a senior, Peniata stepped into the libero role and has nicely filled former libero Paula Gentil’s shoes. Tan took over the defensive specialist role with her strong play early in the season, but said she is just now beginning to get comfortable at the college level.

“I think there are some moments when I still feel uncomfortable,” she said. “But, over the last four to five games, I’ve been more comfortable and have gotten used to playing at the college level.”

Peniata has taken her possible replacement under her wing, as Tan credited Peniata for helping her out with the position. Peniata said she was impressed with Tan’s improvement and even joked with the freshman, saying she was afraid of losing her job.

Jokes aside, the two seem to get along very well, with Peniata giving the Florida native rides to and from practice when the temperature began to drop.

Young talent combined with veteran leadership, the apprentice and the teacher – no matter how they’re described, they make for a scary combination.

With Minnesota’s offensive firepower lacking through most of the first part of the season, the backcourt duo, combined with a strong front court, terrorized the Big Ten conference with a smothering defense and pushed the Gophers to their strongest 11-match start in history.

“Defense wins games,” Peniata said. “That’s been a major emphasis here at Minnesota. Coach Hebert stresses a strong defense, and that’s what has given us so much success over the past few years.”