Thursday, August 28, 2008

Establishing a Volleyball Powerhouse

Establishing a Volleyball Powerhouse

October 12, 2005
Establishing a Volleyball Powerhouse
Three easy steps to eternal greatness
by Jeff Barthel

This fall season the Minnesota sports world has seen a dismal end to the Twins recent playoff streak, a disconcerting start to the Vikings season and the annual encouraging start and eventual faltering of the another season of Gophers football. However, one program that’s been consistently strong - but not nearly as recognized - is Minnesota Gophers volleyball.

Led by Head Coach Mike Hebert, the Minnesota volleyball program has become a national power in recent years. Entering his 10th season here, Hebert brought the Gophers out of obscurity and into the national spotlight, leading the team to its first Big Ten Championship, Final Four and national championship appearances.

Hebert says there’s no magical secret to his success, but listed the following criteria for building a national power.

First, you have to hire a great coaching and recruiting staff. Second, you have to find good players. And third, you have to create an environment that makes everyone happy.

In fulfilling his first step, Hebert brought in recruiting coordinator David Boos in 2002. At 30, Boos is considerably inexperienced in comparison to Hebert, a NCAA Division I head coach of 29 years. However, he has already done his share in helping Hebert form a top volleyball program.

As a coaching/recruiting tandem, Hebert and Boos have attracted many of the nation’s strongest, most talented players to Minnesota; four have developed into NCAA All-Americans.

As for the third step in Hebert’s success plan - environment – Minnesota has the Sports Pavilion, a 5,800-seat arena renown as one of the top volleyball venues in the country. From there, the environment created by Hebert fosters success beyond just the physical atmosphere.

Every major NCAA contender has superior coaching, top talent and quality facilities to nurture its success -- what does Minnesota have that others may not?

“I think we project a certain style in a program where people are happy and get along and support each other, and the coaches are of the same mind,” Hebert said. “I think it’s a feel-good, warm, fuzzy kind of a program that attracts a lot of people.”

Historically, though, the nation’s most successful programs have nearly all come from states where warm weather and/or beaches are plentiful, making volleyball more easily accessible to its athletes. Since its inception in 1981, the NCAA Division I Womens Volleyball Title has been held by just nine teams, seven of which are located in warm climates.

Stanford, located in northern California, has six titles, including last year’s. Three other California colleges - UCLA, USC and Long Beach State - have three apiece. Hawaii has also won three, while Pacific has won two. In fact, only three D-I schools not from California or Hawaii - Penn State University, Texas and Nebraska - have won the NCAA volleyball title.

Still, Hebert insists Minnesota’s “warm” program can attract recruits despite the cold climate.

“We still get a lot of difficulty [recruiting] because of the weather, but the people who understand what’s important, I think, are still attracted to the program.”

In an attempt to push Minnesota past it’s national runner-up finish - the Gophers lost the championship 3-0 to Stanford in 2004 - Hebert’s 2005 team will boast eight new players and an incoming recruiting class ranked fourth nationally. Ironically, two of the new players transferred from states known for their warm weather.

“I think a big part of coming here was coach Hebert,” said USC transfer Sara Florian, “just his sincerity of wanting me to be a part of his program.”

Top freshman recruit Kyla Roehrig agreed that the coaching staff was a major selling point in signing with the Gophers.

“I just loved my visit here, the coaches are great,” said Roehrig, a 6-foot-5-inch Nebraska native. “And the girls ... you just want to attach to them because they remind you so much of your friends and family.”

Roehrig joins a volleyball family that includes three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Paula Gentil, All-American junior setter Kelly Bowman and a front-court tandem - junior Meredith Nelson and sophomore Jessy Jones - Hebert touts as “one of the best, if not the best middle blocker tandem in the Big Ten.” Nelson, Minnesota’s leading blocker in 2005, returns as a the team’s captain. Hebert also credits Bowman, Jessica Byrnes and Marci Peniata as team leaders.

So by adding a bevy of top recruits and a pair of talented transfers to this group of talented veterans, could this be the year Hebert and Minnesota win it all?

The 2005 team is arguably the most talented group of athletes the Gophers have ever had. Considering the Gophers are off to a hot start this season, and have been ranked in the top ten for over 20 straight weeks dating back to 2003, it is plausible but still early.

“I think the key is to be balanced offensively and also to maintain our team chemistry,” Nelson said. “We have eight new players and eight veterans, so it’s going to be hard to continue a level of chemistry that’s going to be an elite team.”

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