Dec. 12, 2009

By Judd Spicer
Special to

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Maybe it has to do with people wanting to stay inside come a Minnesota winter.  Regardless of the reason, results have dictated that the Sports Pavilion has a habit of drama in the Sweet 16.

The present clashed with the past in Friday night’s first Division I regional volleyball semifinal when third-seed Florida State (31-2) needed five sets to defeat Kentucky (29-5) and advance to the first Elite Eight in the program’s history. The host Gophers didn’t need five sets to defeat Colorado State, but if past performance proves indicative of future result, then Minnesota and Florida State best hydrate themselves for Saturday night’s regional final. The winner advances to the Final Four next week in Tampa, Fla.

The last time the University of Minnesota hosted volleyball’s Sweet 16 was in 2004 -- and the matches lasted nearly as long as the memories.  The Gophers eventually advanced to the Final Four that year before losing in the national championship to Stanford.  But getting to the semis via their home court first involved equal parts endurance, and history.

In 2004, after Ohio State beat Tennessee in a five-set match to begin the regional semis, the Gophers and Georgia Tech faced off in a duel of legendary proportions.

“I was here in ’04,” remembered present-day Gopher Hailey Cowles, now a junior libero for Minnesota. “I just remember all the players, how good they were and how great the matches were.  You could feel how much the girls were enjoying it.”

With Cowles stellar line on Friday -- including 10 kills, three assists, 14 digs and a service ace -- it seemed she too was taking pleasure in the opportunity to play in a Sweet 16.

What was most “felt” at the time -- and remembered as lore today -- was a fourth set that saw the two teams battle for what was the most combined points in the history of D-I volleyball’s rally-scoring era.    

“My most indelible memory of that ’04 Regional in Minneapolis is our 48-46 loss in game four against Georgia Tech when we were up 2-1,” said Gopher coach Mike Herbert. “ I think that set a record of most points for a set of rally-scoring.”

 In that set, there were 10 match-point opportunities for Minnesota and nine for Georgia Tech. “Both coaches had used all their substitutions, all their timeouts,” Herbert said. “By the end of that set, the Georgia Tech staff and our staff knew each other.  We would gaze down the way and giggle.  There was nothing any of us could do -- all the moves were gone.  The players on the floor had to settle it.

“And then we lost, but came back to win the fifth set, 15-8. It was a wonderful night.  Then we had to go five sets with Ohio State and the great Stacey Gordon the next night.  I remember putting in Jessy Jones -- a freshman who really hadn’t really played much all year -- at the middle block.  We were down 2-1 and she goes in there and starts shutting down Stacey Gordon.  Those were some great matches with some great crowds.”

Same great crowds, same intense matches in this ’09 version of the Minneapolis regional.  Should the Saturday night final indeed go the distance, it will prove worthy of note that Minnesota is 3-2 in five setters, while Florida St. is 7-2 after its win over Kentucky.