Championship or Bust

Moderately successful: Head coach Mike Hebert
Craig Bares

"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.

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.

By contrast, Hebert's top recruits come from around the globe. Nicole Branagh, the sophomore outside hitter who leads the Gophers in kill shots, is from California. Sophomore Sonja Posthuma--the team's co-captain and an outside hitter who excels at both kill shots and more finesse-oriented tip shots--is from the Netherlands. The team's most powerful freshman outside hitter, Yvonne Wichert, hails from Germany. And Hebert went to Honolulu to land freshman Lindsey Berg, the Gophers' top server, setter, and digger.

If this quartet lacks the allure of local roots, however, they compensate Gopher fans with a beguiling, volatile mixture of skill, potential, and inexperience. Including sophomore middle blocker Heather Baxter (from Aurora, Ill.), five of the six Minnesota starters are just two years removed from high school. A primary source of Hebert's caution about the Gophers' fortunes this year is the fact that while conference favorites Penn State and Wisconsin return five and six starters from last year's squads, Minnesota has only two holdovers from its 1997 lineup--the fewest of any team in the league.

Injuries are another obstacle. With two senior middle blockers returning this season, Hebert felt he had veteran stability from at least one position in his lineup. But then co-captain Linda Shudlick tore a ligament in her knee during spring practice and is likely lost for the season. And Shudlick's backup, Tara Baynes, was forced to quit the squad on doctor's orders due to a back injury. Their absence was especially apparent in the loss to Penn State, as the Nittany Lions continually exploited the Gophers' middle defense. "Right now we have no great depth at any position. Because of injuries, we could be starting three freshman and three sophomores," laments Hebert, who has been substituting more frequently this season as a result. (In volleyball at the collegiate level, players are expected to retain their original rotational order throughout the entire game. Once the ball is served, however, players are allowed to move anywhere on the court in order to dig the ball. Each team is allowed 15 substitutions per game, and each player is allowed unlimited entries at her position.)

Yet the young talent thrown into the breach has been good enough to beat Ohio State and provide Penn State with its toughest match of the year. Berg has been especially impressive, serving well enough to take the team lead in aces, and keeping many rallies alive with improbable, acrobatic digs. "I don't think there's a ball that's come over the net that she hasn't had her hands on," Voelz claims. Minnesota's trio of underclassmen outside hitters have been less reliable, but occasionally more formidable, as demonstrated by their opening salvo against Penn State.

A young team playing in the nation's toughest conference is still going to be beset by inconsistency, however. While the Gophers actually landed more kill shots than Penn State in their match, Minnesota's overall percentage of winners was just .098, (compared to .372 percent for the Nittany Lions), and they more than doubled Penn State's total of unforced errors. Even the Gophers' impressive triumph over Ohio State featured a horrendous second game, in which Minnesota's lack of teamwork enabled the Buckeyes to score a whopping eight service aces.

Hebert knows that he must be patient with his burgeoning stars--and that more help is needed if the Gophers are going to attain the heights Voelz has practically mandated for this team. "The most important variable for our program right now is still recruitment. We're still a couple players away from having the talent to compete at the championship level," he says. Almost halfway through his current five-year contract, the coach has already fashioned one of the most exciting, and woefully underpublicized, sports teams in Minnesota. It's worth watching to see whether or not these Gophers can take the next step toward a conference championship, and, possibly, a national title. If they don't, in another year or two, that ticking time bomb could be Chris Voelz.

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