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Feature

Gopher players console each other.

Gopher volleyball players console each other after losing to Stanford in the NCAA championship match.

Gophers fall to Stanford in NCAA volleyball championship

By Rick Moore

Published on December 19, 2004

In the scorebook, the University of Minnesota women's volleyball team's quest to win its first national championship ended Saturday at about 2:45 p.m., California time, on a kill by Stanford's Ogonna Nnamani. Realistically--and figuratively--the Gophers' hopes lay crumpled on the Long Beach Arena court earlier in game three alongside Gopher All-American libero Paula Gentil. In the process of the Gophers' claiming a point that would give them an 8-5 lead, Gentil sold out her body for a spectacular dig to keep the point alive, as she has done hundreds of times this year. Her body slammed awkwardly and audibly to the court, as it has done many dozens of times this year.

Only this time was different. Rather than getting back up, dusting herself off, limping a bit or shaking off an injured finger, she stayed on the court for about five minutes, face down and quivering with pain. Gentil, who suffered what coach Mike Hebert said after the match was a contusion to her neck, had to come out of game three, and with her sitting on the bench, any hope the Gophers had of overcoming a two-games-to-none deficit against the Cardinal seemed to fade like the mid-afternoon sun.

Stanford closed out the match in three games, 30-23, 30-27, 30-21, and in the process claimed its second national championship in four years, its fourth in nine years, and its sixth overall. Minnesota, which was making its second consecutive Final Four appearance and on Thursday had beaten two-time defending national champion USC, was left with second place.

"You tend to define yourself by how you did in the last match," said Hebert. "And that would be a big mistake. This team accomplished so much."

"Stanford played almost flawlessly. I have to tip my hat to them," Hebert said in the post-game press conference. "We didn't have too many answers to what they were doing."

Much was spoken before and during the tournament about the prior dominance of western teams. Teams from the West (the Pac-10 and Big West conferences) had won 19 of the 23 previous NCAA titles, and Penn State (in 1999) had been the only Big Ten team to bring home a national championship. But with the Gophers being the only number-one regional seed to make it to the Final Four, and after knocking off the Women of Troy in the semifinals, it looked like this might be the year for a Midwestern team to flex its muscles in Long Beach--an area where volleyball is as big as hockey is in Minnesota. (The beach volleyball phenomenon had its birth about 15 miles up the shore in Manhattan Beach.)

No such luck. Stanford played an incredibly efficient--if not almost flawless--match (hitting at an amazing percentage of .436), and didn't leave much doubt as to who was the stronger team of the day. After falling behind 6-3 in the first game, the Cardinal scored five points in a row to take an 8-6 lead. The Gophers were able to tie the game on a number of occasions, the last at 13-13, before Stanford reeled off another five points on some strong hitting to take a lead they never relinquished.

The Gophers' best chance to change the momentum of the match came in the second game, in which neither team led by more than three points. The Gophers played stronger as the game wore on and took a 27-25 lead on a kill by Lindsey Taatjes. But Stanford came back to score the last five points of the game--two on kills by Nnamani, who finished with 29 and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player--to keep the Gophers at bay heading into intermission.

After the break and the injury to Gentil, the Gophers and their large contingent of fans were left to look up at the scoreboard and look back--after the initial disappointment waned--at another immensely successful season. As Hebert pointed out after the match, there's only one team that wins its final game, and that's the national champion. "And we came within a heartbeat of doing that," he said. "You tend to define yourself by how you did in the last match. And that would be a big mistake. This team accomplished so much."

The Gophers were the only team in the country never to be ranked below No. 5 in the national rankings, and broke the school record for wins in the NCAA era with 33. Gentil had 176 digs in the NCAA tournament, shattering the previous record 95. Gentil and senior Erin Martin were named to the all-tournament team.

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