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Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968.

Reusse: U volleyball has become a happening more than ever

Doug Beal has 24 more days to serve as the CEO for USA Volleyball. He could be spending one-third of that time preoccupied with an important family matter, that being the attempt of his daughter Maddie Beal and her teammates to give the Gophers volleyball program a first-ever NCAA title.

This isn’t a sport where an Alabama is an overwhelming favorite, and a playoff loss on the way to another national championship would be an astounding upset.

Division I volleyball is where the differences are razor thin at the top echelon, and even a team with the resilience and talent of the Gophers entered Friday’s round of 16 facing jeopardy against Missouri, with an excellent tradition and a 22-2 record over the past two months.

Doug Beal started playing volleyball in the fourth grade in Cleveland. He’s now 69 and earlier in 2016 announced that he would retire after his 12th year as the sport’s CEO in the U.S.

There isn’t much in that long association with the game that Beal finds more astounding than the tremendous skill level found at the college level in women's volleyball.

“We’ve always had great women players,’’ Beal said. “The players as a whole are more physical and powerful than 10 or 15 years ago. They jump so high, they hit so hard. I love it.’’

Minnesotans have seemed to join Beal in that sentiment as never before over the past month. Mike Hebert was hired away from Illinois in 1996. The growth into a potent program was complete by 1999, and the Gophers mostly have stayed in the mix near the top of the Big Ten in the ensuing seasons.

What also has happened in that time is that D-1 volleyball has gone from a sport where the power was located in the West, to a sport where the Big Ten has the fiercest level of competition.

Over the past decade, UCLA has the only West Coast championship, while Penn State and Nebraska have combined to win eight titles (and Texas the other).

“The Big Ten is so tough,’’ Beal said. “And the Big Ten Network has let more people discover that. That network has given a tremendous boost to the so-called Olympic sports.’’

Katie Harms is the president of the booster club for U of M volleyball. Her daughter Katherine was an All-America in 2012.

“My daughter was the previous player to wear No. 8 for the Gophers,’’ Harms said. “Sarah Wilhite was the next to have the number. She’s taken it and gone beyond … the Big Ten Player of the Year.’’

The mainstream media in the Twin Cities has never given the coverage to Gophers volleyball that this team has received recently. The players have dominated the Star Tribune’s sports front several times.

“It’s about time,’’ Harms said.

So, that’s your reaction?

“No, I think it’s great that this group is receiving so much attention,’’ Harms said. “It’s probably because of 'expectation'. Mike Hebert built a great program, but Hugh [McCutcheon] has brought an attitude to the program that says, ‘Why can’t it be us?’ He’s made it seem possible.’’

The possibility is a national title, and yet there was another reminder of the immense nature of the task on Friday.

The Gophers ended the Big Ten schedule with four straight victories over rated teams – Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin – and all took five sets.

They made quicker work of North Dakota and Hawaii (once a giant of women’s volleyball) last weekend, but the expectation was Missouri would be a different matter.

And the Tigers certainly were that when the teams took the break after two sets.

The Gophers were magnificent in the first set and rolled to a 25-15 victory. They showed some flaws in the second set, and that’s all it takes – some flaws – when you get to the last 16 in this tournament.

Missouri broke a 19-19 tie with four straight points and won the second set 25-21. That meant it was going to be a long night for the latest full house of exuberant fans in the Sports Pavilion.

The Tigers are undersized – at least by Big Ten standards. They also have a tremendous 5-foot-9 senior hitter in Carly Kan. She caused problems hammering away near the net and with her defensive skills.

The Gophers came out on fire after the 10-minute intermission. They held on to win the third set 25-19. And then they discovered the same brilliance from the first set in the stretch of the fourth set, turning a 13-11 lead into a 25-14 victory.

And Wilhite was unstoppable in that final set to put the Gophers in Saturday night's regional final. That had to make Katie Harms had to be extra proud in the legacy of No. 8.

Reusse: Hamline beats St. Thomas for first time in 36 years (and three arenas)

O’Shaughnessy Hall was one of the great basketball gyms in the history of the human race. It was squeezed in on the third floor of the athletic building at the College of St. Thomas (which now fancies itself as a university).

The first time I covered a game there was during my 2½ years (1966-68) at the St. Cloud Times. The game between St. Thomas and St. John’s on that winter night was so important that Mike Augustin, my boss and Johnnies beat reporter, brought me along to write a second story off the game.

Might have been a senior night for the Tommies, I’m not sure, but the lights were darkened for the introduction of the home team. A spotlight was placed on a large hoop with a paper center that the lead St. Thomas player would break as the players ran onto the court.

Before this, there was the sound of someone running across the court in the darkness and then a student in St. John’s red came bursting through the paper. All Hades broke loose.

The Tommies moved to a modern gym, Schoenecker Arena, in the fall of 1981. O’Shaughnessy remained until a few years back, when the building was torn down to make room for a marvelous student center.

John Tauer, the Tommies’ men’s basketball coach, was an outstanding player at the school in the mid-‘90s. He became an assistant for Steve Fritz and worked the summer camps at the school. O’Shaughnessy Hall was used for campers.

“In the summer, you would be drenched in sweat just walking into the place,’’ Tauer said. “We called it the ‘Hot Box,’ although not with the campers. We used to tell them it was the ‘Ice Box.’

“Then, the campers would go up there and be very perplexed. They would tell us it was not cool like they expected.’’

St. Thomas is on its second arena since leaving the Hot Box to pickup games and campers 35 years ago. It's now the Steve Fritz Court at Schoenecker Arena, which is part of the school’s Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex.

And it was there on Wednesday night that a historic event took place:

Hamline defeated Tauer’s Tommies and did so handily, 74-61.

The Tommies are the defending Division III national champions. The Tommies have had at least a share of the MIAC regular-season title for the previous 11 seasons.

Hamline was 4-21 last season. The Pipers last won an MIAC title in 1960, when the legendary Joe Hutton was the coach. That was the last of Joe’s 19 conference titles in 35 seasons.

And here’s the nugget on Wednesday’s upset for the Pipers that got me:

Hamline had not won a game at St. Thomas since 1980. And that means, the last time the Pipers won at St. Thomas, Tom Feely was in his last year as the coach and the Tommies were still playing in the third-floor walkup.

Hamline’s last victory in the annual two-game series was in 2011  in Hutton Fieldhouse, another ancient and wonderful gym, and one in which the Pipers continue to play.

Jim Hayes is in his fourth season at Hamline. Hayes played for the Pipers in the mid-‘90s. He had an excellent run as an assistant to Guy Kalland at Carleton, and then was an assistant with the Tommies.

The Hamline program was torn apart in the middle of the 2012-13 season, when there were allegations that a player had punched a woman on an early-season road trip. Coach Nelson Whitmore was suspended in January and left the school a month later.

Athletic Director Jason Verdugo served out the rest of the schedule, and then hired Hayes. There were lumps to be taken for the new coach, including 0-2 with losses to Augsburg and Bethel to start this MIAC schedule.

And then came Wednesday. The Pipers had lost 38 in a row at St. Thomas, and were 0-37 in the two Schoeneckers.

Yup. They hadn't won since the Hot Box. Fantastic.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

< >
  • Gophers women's hockey at Boston U.

    2 pm

  • Gophers men's hockey at Michigan State

    7 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Vikings at Jacksonville

    12 pm on Ch. 9, 100.3/1130

  • Gophers women's basketball at South Carolina

    2 pm on SECN, 88.5-FM

  • Northern Illinois at Gophers men's basketball

    4 pm on 1500-AM

  • St. Louis at Wild

    5 pm on FSN PLUS, 100.3-FM

  • Golden State at Timberwolves

    6 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Florida at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Timberwolves at Chicago

    7 pm on ESPN, 830-AM

  • Belmont at Gophers women's basketball

    12 pm on 88.5-FM

  • LIU Brooklyn at Gophers men's basketball

    7 pm on 1500-AM

  • Wild at Nashville

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Arizona at Wild

    1 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

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