The University of Minnesota Gopher women's volleyball team is in Tampa Thursday for the NCAA Final Four. The Gophers, who were seeded 11th in the tournament, take on the number two seed Texas.
There was a lot going against the Gopher team this year. They had a shaky start to the season and faced a team upheaval mid-season. But the team is feeling confident as they go up against college volleyball's best teams in the coming days.
The Gopher volleyball team got in one more practice earlier in the week, just hours before boarding a plane to Florida. During the season it didn't look like the team was destined for a long post-season run. Even coach Mike Hebert had his doubts.
"I don't want to tell anybody that I was dead set in terms of thinking we wouldn't get here, but it wasn't obvious in the beginning," Hebert said.
Hebert, who lead the Gophers team to Final Four appearances in 2003 and 2004, said several key pieces were missing early in the season.
"A lot of thinking patterns that needed to be changed; development of the young freshman players had to take place," he said. "A whole lot of things that seemed to me to be in the way of our accomplishing this, but that changed."
Hebert said the change came when the team hit another rough patch when All American Brook Deiter left for personal reasons in October.
Team captain Lauren Gibbemeyer agrees that's when the Gophers had to come together. Gibbemeyer said they put the departure, and their early losses, behind them.
"The bottom line is we're playing the best volleyball at the end and that's all that really matters," Gibbemeyer said.
One Gopher player said the Final Four tournament appearance has her "beyond excited". Senior Megan Wilson said doubts as to whether the Gopher volleyball team would make the post-season, has pushed them to play their best.
"You're out to prove people wrong," Wilson said. "You're out to prove to even yourself that you belong here and so when we go into a game like this we're obviously going to go out there and we're going to fight because we want to show everybody we do belong here."
And even though Wilson said the team is focusing on the Final Four now, don't forget they're also college students with final tests to worry about.
"I rearranged a lot of my finals and I took one yesterday and I have one I'm taking with me on the road, and then I'll be stress free," she said. "I can just go play and have fun."
Coach Hebert said he's confident in his team's ability to play well in the post-season, but he also wants them to remember to take in the whole Final Four experience.
"Can't guarantee wins; no one can ever do that," he said. "But I can guarantee that we're going to enjoy ourselves and play hard."
The Gopher volleyball team takes on Texas Thursday night in Tampa, Florida. The other half of the Final Four is Penn State and Hawaii, the two also play on Thursday.
The winners will meet in the NCAA Division I volleyball championship on Saturday night.