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Feature

Gopher coach Mike Hebert and players celebrate after their victory over Ohio State.

Gopher head coach Mike Hebert walks past a group of celebrating players after Minnesota's five-game win over Ohio State on Saturday evening.

Volleyball team headed to Final Four again

By Rick Moore

Published on December 12, 2004

The University of Minnesota volleyball team is headed to the Final Four for the second straight year, following a suspenseful five-game win over Ohio State Saturday night in the regional final at the Sports Pavilion. The Gophers will now head to Long Beach, California, for an encore matchup on Thursday evening against two-time defending national champion USC, which ousted Minnesota in the semifinals of the 2003 Final Four.

On paper, it looked as if Minnesota's road to Long Beach might have a slight downhill grade, with the regional semifinals and final scheduled at home in the Pavilion. But as the weekend played out, the Gophers were never able to coast; indeed, they were stretched to the limit before beating unseeded Georgia Tech Friday evening (25-30, 30-22, 30-24, 46-48, 15-9) and Ohio State on Saturday (30-32, 34-32, 27-30, 30-28, 15-8). The Gophers held on in a tense fourth game against Ohio State before grabbing an early lead and finally putting away the Buckeyes in Game 5.

Erin Martin led six Gophers in double figures with 20 kills against Ohio State, and was joined by Paula Gentil and Lindsey Taatjes on the regional all-tournament team. Taatjes, who had 18 kills and 37 assists, was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

"Our players are very much looking forward to seeing Southern Cal on the court again," said Hebert.

Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert praised the Gophers after the match for their confident play in the last game against the Buckeyes. "I think it came down to the home court advantage and us making individual plays," said Hebert, who was also full of praise for Ohio State's Stacey Gordon, who had a whopping 44 kills and hit .395 against the Gophers. "I have two words for you--Stacey Gordon," he said. "Has there ever been a better player to play the game of college volleyball? She was just unbelievable."

While the Gophers weren't able to control Gordon, they were able to force a deciding fifth game--one in which they came out firing. They grabbed a 3-0 lead on a kill by Martin, a block by freshman Jessy Jones (who sparked the Gophers off the bench at the start of the fourth game), and a tip by Taatjes. Minnesota had leads of 5-1 and 8-4 before Ohio State closed to within two at 8-6, but then the Gophers scored five straight points to effectively end the Buckeyes' hopes.

The Gophers also needed a final-game win to pull out the match on Friday against Georgia Tech, which won Game 4 by the score of 48-46. It was the highest scoring game in a Division I volleyball match since rally scoring began, and the Gophers were unable to cash in on any of 10 match points.

The Gophers are now 7-2 this season in matches that have gone to a fifth game. "If we have to play a fifth game," said Taatjes, "going into it, everyone has the confidence that the game is ours."

Minnesota was the only number-one seed in the four regional tournaments to make it to the Final Four--a further testament to the relative balance among the nation's top 20 teams. Two top seeds, Penn State and Hawaii, lost on Friday evening, and Nebraska--the top-ranked team in the country--fell to USC on Saturday.

That leaves the Gophers as the highest-ranked team heading into the weekend at Long Beach, but they'll still need to get past the Trojans of USC, who have recent history on their side. In addition to eliminating Minnesota in last year's tournament, the Trojans beat the Gophers in five games earlier this year.

According to Hebert, it will be a challenge the Gophers will relish. "Our players are very much looking forward to seeing Southern Cal on the court again," Hebert said. For more details on the Final Four, visit Gophersports.

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