Minnesota’s volleyball team has made itself known with back-to-back trips to the Final Four, and senior Paula Gentil has carved out a reputation as one of the best liberos in the nation
But what some don’t know is that while the Gophers were chasing a national title, they were also setting themselves up for the future with a star-studded 2005 recruiting class that looks to see a lot of action early this season.
“We enter practice with the most talent I’ve ever seen,” coach Mike Hebert said. “We welcomed in what I think is the best recruiting class ever.”
But the question is whether that talent will live up to the hype.
The Gophers lost senior leadership last season with the exits of outside hitters Erin Martin and Trisha Bratford and setter Lindsey Taatjes. The roster includes only two seniors this season, compared to the six who graced last year’s lineup.
The absence of those seniors has left a void on the left side for Hebert, one that he knows won’t be easy to correct.
Freshman Michele Wilber and the rest of the Gophers freshmen are being counted on to contribute this season, and few would doubt they have the ability to do just that.
The only thing that keeps him upbeat about it all are the new faces he is seeing at practice: freshmen Kyla Roehrig, Rachel Hartmann, Kelly Fallon, Kelly Schmidt, Katie Vatterrodt and Michele Wilber.
Amplifying the pressure they face are the expectations the players before them have created in recent years.
“We’ve come in to something pretty special,” Roehrig said. “I know we have big shoes to fill, but there’s so many of us that the future is just going to get better.”
So for Roehrig and others, the dilemma is learning to play for the first time with a libero like Gentil.
Hebert said it is very easy to be intimidated by Gentil on the court, but it’s her leadership ability on and off the court that will help the newcomers cope with her style of play.
“I don’t really feel like a leader, but I guess I am,” Gentil said. “I mean, I guess that’s what I’m doing, helping them learn. But they already have so much talent, and they are so smart that we are planning on continuing the success we have had the past few years.”
Continuing that success appears to be a tough task this season, as Hebert sees Penn State as the best team in the Big Ten, with the Gophers second.
But preseason predictions are mere speculation, unlike the increased success that Gentil said the Gophers are destined for even after she graduates.
“The future is in good hands,” Gentil said. “If you keep getting players like we just got, it can only get better. Even though I don’t know how much better it can possibly get than this.”