Elizabeth Wicks has been a regular at Gophers volleyball matches for 30 years. When she started attending, the matches were played on the raised floor at Williams Arena, Steph Schleuder was early in her tenure as coach (1982-94) and you could buy a box of freshly popped and buttered popcorn for 50 cents.
Elizabeth was 5-10 and athletic and grew up with a hunger for competition. It was also before Title IX changed the America’s sports landscape, meaning there was little in the way of organized sports for her generation of women.
“I happened to go to a Gophers match one night, and to see young women athletes competing so well and in such an exciting sport … it was inspiring to me,’’ Wicks said.
Volleyball also proved to be inspiring to her daughter, Anne — 6 feet 2, athletic, hungry for competition, and with a full chance to participate. Anne became a star in Milan Mader’s fabulous Lakeville volleyball program, went to Stanford and won a pair of national championships.
Anne was home for the holidays after winning the second of those titles in December 1994. Asked about the decision to pass on a scholarship offer from the Gophers, Anne said:
“I had a great relationship with the coaches at Minnesota, but there’s no way the Gophers could compete with the type of offers I was getting. … How do you turn down Stanford or UCLA?’’
This comment contained zero arrogance and 100 percent reality. In 1994, the might in volleyball remained where it always had been — on the West Coast. And in Minnesota, the Gophers’ program was in the midst of chaos.
Schleuder wanted equitable pay with her male counterparts. Women’s athletic director Chris Voelz feuded with Schleuder and then fired her.
The inexperienced Pam Miller-Dombeck was left to coach the 1995 team that fell to 7-13 in a less-than-dynamic Big Ten.
“Those were a couple of bad years, but from the acrimony and the rubble rose the phoenix,’’ Elizabeth Wicks said.
Voelz wouldn’t pay Schleuder, but she also had a grand vision of what volleyball could be.
On Dec. 27, 1995, a month after the end of that wreck of a season, Voelz gave a multiyear contract — starting at the then-kingly annual salary of $86,300 — to Mike Hebert, the most successful coach in the Midwest the previous 13 years at Illinois.
Soon players being sought nationally — and Minnesota kids with West Coast offers — were signing with the Gophers.
Hebert was the “phoenix’’ for Gophers volleyball. When you put the run of success inside a conference with the strength of the Big Ten in volleyball, and the number of schools trying to compete in Division I, there’s not much debate:
The most successful sport at the university — from Hebert’s arrival in 1996 to Hugh McCutcheon’s Gophers of today — has been volleyball.
Men’s hockey? There are 59 Division I programs. Women’s hockey? There are 35. Wrestling? There are 79.
There are 294 in women’s volleyball. Most important, there are a dozen teams in the Big Ten cutting each other’s throats for 10 consecutive weeks from late September until the end of November.
The Gophers will be in their 17th NCAA tournament in 18 years when they host first- and second-round matches at the Sports Pavilion on Friday and Saturday.
They have been in three Final Fours and lost in the title match in 2004.
The only year the tournament was missed was 1998. That was the first season for Lindsey Berg, a setter from Hawaii. She became a superstar at Minnesota, a member of the U.S. national team since 2003 and a two-time Olympic silver medalist.
Why Minnesota 15 years ago?
“I went there to build a program with Mike,’’ Berg said. “I wanted to be part of something that was special. I made that leap with Steph Hagen, and with Nicole Branagh, who had been with Mike for a year.
“I was back in Minnesota three weeks ago and went to the match with Nebraska. The Pavilion was packed with 6,000 people, it went five sets, and the fans were going nuts.
“I’m very proud to be a Gopher. I’m proud to be part of what volleyball has become at Minnesota.’’
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.