Passer quietly takes charge for U volleyball team

by Tim Klobuchar

Becky Bauer remembers watching from the stands as future Gophers teammate Jane Passer and her United South Central team won the 1993 Minnesota Class A volleyball championship.
“They set every ball to Jane,” said Bauer, whose Bloomington Jefferson team made it to state in Class AA. “Every ball.”
Mike Hebert, Passer’s future coach at Minnesota, coached against Passer the last two years while he was at Illinois, and remembers nothing about her.
“I knew Katrien (DeDecker), I knew Bauer, I knew (Tara) Baynes,” Hebert said. “I didn’t even know who Jane Passer was.”
For her part, Passer, who is from Wells, Minn., said the only similarity between her high school and college volleyball careers is the crowd support. That local interest has improved tremendously during the Gophers’ 21-8 season this year.
“I’m from a small town, and almost everybody went to state when we made it. We had about 2,000 people there. I think the excitement around (volleyball) is a lot the same, and the community support is very similar.”
Passer, now a junior, is having by far her best season, but chances are she’s not much more noticeable to other Big Ten coaches than she was to Hebert. She’s maintained and even refined the raw athletic abilities that made her dominant in high school, which prompted Hebert to say she is probably the best overall athlete on the team. But she has still escaped recognition at the collegiate level.
“You talk about a basketball player who gets a `quiet’ 20 points,” Hebert said. “That’s what Jane is. You look at a stat sheet after a match and see she had 13 kills, and you say, how did that happen?'”
How it happens is that, despite her explosive vertical jump and quickness, Passer is limited by her height (5 feet, 10 inches), and gets her kills in less flashy ways.
“She tips the ball to open spots in the floor, and she fools blockers,” Hebert said. “They’re not as dramatic as Katrien’s kills, which are high-jumping bangs to the floor.”
Not only has Passer had to adjust from being a DeDecker-esque high school player to a role player, but she’s also had to switch positions. After last season, she moved from outside hitter to middle blocker, a change she accepted readily.
“I was pretty much expecting it,” Passer said. “It didn’t really bother me. I played in the spring, so I knew I wouldn’t be coming into this year trying to learn a whole new position.”
“If you asked her to carry the water bottles, she’d do it,” Hebert said.
Bauer said Passer’s superior athletic talent and her relative inexperience were what allowed her to make the position change almost seamlessly.
“She never really had a lot of organized coaching,” Bauer said. “So she was never told to play just one way. She was uncoached coming in here, so it was easier for her to learn everything at once.”
Passer has adapted and quietly put together an outstanding season. She’s second on the team in kills, second in block assists, and first in attack percentage, ahead of even DeDecker. Fittingly, Passer is as unassuming off the court as she is on it.
“I look at it realistically,” Passer said of her success offensively this season. “When everybody pays so much attention to Katrien, that leaves me wide open a lot.”
Passer is also an integral part of the team chemistry this year, a year in which the Gophers have already won eight more matches than they did all of last year and will probably go to the NCAA tournament.
“She’s really at the center,” Hebert said. “She’s well-liked by everybody, she’s got a tremendous sense of humor. She’s just a high-quality individual.”
Again, Passer blocks the praise attempt.
“Whatever I can do to help is fine with me,” she said. “I’m comfortable in that role. It doesn’t bother if it’s not in a category where you get a lot of recognition. It’s fine as long as the team wins.”
Bauer has grown accustomed to Passer’s modesty. She’s played on the same team with Passer for almost three years, and the two are also roommates.
“She’s very humble,” Bauer said. “She has a presence on the court, and she makes it known. But it’s not like she goes out there and says, look at me,’ which is usually what happens.”
Passer obviously isn’t the type of player who trumpets her own accomplishments, but she has to admit: She’s having a season to remember.