Saturday’s Minnesota volleyball match against Indiana recorded the second-highest attendance mark in school history, when 9,671 patrons packed Williams Arena. Only last season’s match against Illinois at Williams brought in more fans.
However, the complex next door – the Sports Pavilion – is the real home for Minnesota’s volleyball team.
“Williams is a great thing,” sophomore middle blocker Jessy Jones said. “But I love the Pavilion. The Pavilion is home.”
Williams Arena was home to the team for about 15 years, until 1993. During that time, Minnesota had more than 4,000 fans packed into the historic 77-year-old arena only three times.
The team started playing in the Pavilion in 1994 when men’s hockey moved to the new Mariucci Arena.
“We do enjoy playing in there,” coach Mike Hebert said about Williams, “because when we do play in there, there’s always a nice crowd.”
However, the Gophers have been drawing big crowds into the Pavilion as well. Their average attendance has been in the top 10 nationally the past six seasons. Last season, Minnesota averaged 3,742 fans a match.
Aside from the large crowds at home, multiple players said the Pavilion gives them an extra advantage – the playing surface doesn’t pose a problem for injury.
“I really don’t like playing there (Williams), because the court is raised,” senior libero Paula Gentil said.
“It’s (Williams) a little scary,” Jones said, “because it’s elevated. But it’s a great change.”
The change from the Pavilion to Williams the past two seasons’ has given the team a chance to get more fans excited about Minnesota volleyball.
“I don’t know what it is,” sophomore outside hitter Sarah Florian said. “But it’s just that energy that seems to be refreshing during this game, and that’s what’s cool.”
After last season’s match against Illinois at Williams, Minnesota lost only two matches the rest of the year – a season that ended in a loss to Stanford in the national championship match.
Jones said that type of excitement from a large crowd can carry a team pretty far into the postseason.
However, there may be something else that makes Minneapolis a hard place to play.
“We’ve had some trips there where winter was knocking the hell out of you,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “Just walking across the street from the hotel seemed like a trip.”
Hebert said he knows how important playing at home is for a successful season.
“It does take time to adjust to a new set of circumstances,” Hebert said about playing in an unfamiliar venue.
Yet, Williams is new territory for these Gophers players and Hebert. But they wouldn’t mind playing there again next season.
“Any away team coming into the atmosphere of Williams is going to get a little flustered,” Jones said.
On the strength of two wins last week, Minnesota moved up one spot in the coaches’ poll to No. 17.
The Gophers defeated Iowa and Indiana in straight games last week.