Championship or Bust

The Gophers' Women's Volleyball team is becoming one of the best squads in the nation. But can they satisfy their athletic director?

"The University of Minnesota volleyball program is a ticking time bomb." That audacious proclamation by Chris Voelz's Women's Athletic Department in the team's 1998 program guide seemed prophetic for a brief period on September 25, as the Gophers exploded on Penn State, the second-best women's college volleyball squad in the nation. With freshman Yvonne Wichert serving aces and sophomores Nicole Branagh and Sonja Posthuma pounding kill shots past the bewildered Nittany Lions, Minnesota surged to a 6-0 lead. Penn State quickly called time out, giving both teams a chance to realize what was happening. When play resumed, the Gophers had been defused, eking out just one point the rest of the game. Inexorably, the Nittany Lions' talent, experience, and superior teamwork took control in the second and third games as well, and after 95 minutes of play, Minnesota had been swept, 15-7, 15-7, and 15-8.

Yet there were still reasons for optimism among Gopher fans after the match. Minnesota had lasted longer and scored more points than any of Penn State's other opponents thus far this year. And back at the University's Sports Pavilion 24 hours later, the Gophers upset 14th ranked Ohio State, three games to one. After that match, longtime fans were whispering that in the next year or two, the Gophers will be legitimate contenders for the Big Ten championship. And if Minnesota can conquer the rugged Big Ten--rated the toughest conference in the country last year by the NCAA computers, ahead of even the traditionally powerful Pac-10 on the West Coast--then the team is a threat to win the national championship.

Moderately successful: Head coach Mike Hebert
Craig Bares
Moderately successful: Head coach Mike Hebert

University of Minnesota Women's Athletic Director Chris Voelz will accept nothing less. Voelz, who has never been prone to whispering about her expectations for the team, created a major flap at the end of the 1994 season by firing Stephanie Schleuder, who had coached the women's volleyball squad for 13 years. Schleuder howled that she was let go because she was putting pressure on Voelz and the university to make the pay system for female coaches at the U more equitable with their counterparts in the men's athletic department. The coach sued the university on those grounds. In 1995 the school settled with her for $300,000, in part because Voelz wanted to be released from a court injunction that kept the volleyball program from hiring a new permanent coach.

Throughout the controversy, Voelz maintained that Schleuder was canned because her record just wasn't up to the winning standard Voelz was setting for her teams. Given that Schleuder had twice taken the Gophers to the NCAA tournament, including a Sweet 16 finish in 1993, and had racked up a very respectable 21-15 record in 1994, the athletic director's standard seemed pretty high indeed.

Freed from the court injunction, Voelz further upped the ante by signing Schleuder's replacement, Mike Hebert, to a five-year deal that, with perks and benefits, was worth approximately $100,000 a year--twice as much as Schleuder's top pay and a time span comparable to the contracts given to the men's football and hockey coaches. Voelz was seeking, and paid for, a proven winner: During his 13 years coaching at the University of Illinois, Hebert amassed a 323-127 record, four Big Ten titles and 11 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, where Illinois reached the Midwest regionals seven times and twice made it to the Final Four. He'll need to do at least that well to keep Voelz happy and his job secure.

On that score, Hebert's first two years coaching the Gophers have been moderately successful but ultimately inconclusive. Despite a solid 47-21 record during that time, and two successive trips into the second round of the NCAA tournament, Hebert's teams have not have not been able to ascend higher than the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

As for this year, "Our team is good enough to keep up the performance level of the last two years," Hebert says carefully. That may not be enough for Voelz, who said she informed the coach at this year's goal-setting session that she would like to see the team go one step further every season. Yet with her own reputation riding on Hebert's success, she prefers to put a positive spin on the current situation. "Mike is such a program builder," she says. "He hasn't said this is the year we're heading (to the top of the Big Ten). He keeps saying we'll be fourth, fifth, or sixth. But Michigan State lost to Louisville, so you never know. It will be interesting."

Hebert does believe that "We're right on the edge of doing something special both on the court and at the gate. We'll try to do our part and win matches, and we hope people will appreciate that and come and see us." Ironically, Hebert has built this exciting team without successfully recruiting the top-notch local talent that would automatically stimulate a loyal fan base. Those who follow the game know that Minnesota high-school volleyball programs produce more than their fair share of blue-chip collegiate prospects. Yet two of the state's top prep stars from last year--Lori Rittenhouse from Mankato West High, and Amanda Rome from Chaska High--elected to attend Wisconsin and Penn State, respectively, the two schools that finished in a first-place tie in the Big Ten last season.

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