Ex-Gopher Lindsey Berg leads a hungry volleyball team

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 27, 2012 - 11:50 PM

The U.S. volleyball captain, who won silver in Beijing, said her squad believes it's ready to rise up to gold.

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Lindsey Berg (4), who was part of a silver medal run in 2008, aims to lead the U.S. team one step farther.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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LONDON — If she never had an opportunity to win anything greater than her silver medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Lindsey Berg could be perfectly content. Given the scenario that lies before her in London, nothing less than gold will do.

The former Gopher is the captain of the U.S. women's volleyball team, which enters the London Games ranked No. 1 in the world. It exceeded expectations when it lost to Brazil in the gold medal match four years ago in Beijing. In the four years since, the team has come under the leadership of coach Hugh McCutcheon, added some stellar young players and won three FIVB World Grand Prix titles, earning the favorite's role in London.

That suits Berg just fine. The setter said the experience of losing a gold taught her team how to win one, a thought that has not left the players' minds in the past four years. With the long wait finally over, Berg is eager to guide them along the path they have charted so carefully, toward what would be the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in women's volleyball.

"I get goose bumps talking about it, because I really believe in this team,"' said Berg, 32, a three-time Olympian whose team opens the Olympic tournament Saturday (2 p.m. Central time) against Korea. "We are a gold medal team.

"The silver medal was incredible. We played some of the best volleyball we've ever played. But it was Brazil's time then. Now it's our time. We've earned it, we deserve it and we're going to take advantage of it."

The first Gopher to make a U.S. Olympic volleyball team, Berg will be inducted this fall into the M Club Hall of Fame. She was a three-time all-Big Ten pick during a career that ran from 1999 through 2001 and still has the second-most assists (5,913) and service aces (283) in league history.

She has said she will retire after these Olympics, ending her nine-year run on the U.S. national team. A Hawaii native, Berg began playing volleyball at age 6. She attended Honolulu's Punahou High School -- the alma mater of President Barack Obama -- and discovered the Gophers program through a family connection. Her father, Dennis, who played at the University of California-Santa Barbara, was a friend of Gophers coach Mike Hebert.

She now has another tie to the U in McCutcheon. He was hired last fall to replace Hebert, who retired, but McCutcheon delayed his start with the Gophers to stay with the U.S. team through the Olympics. He and Berg -- both serious, driven people on the court -- have developed a solid rapport as the team progressed steadily over the past four years.

In Beijing, Berg shared the captaincy with fellow setter Robyn Ah-Mow Santos and came off the bench. She will start in her final Olympics for a team that has gone 99-37 since McCutcheon took over the women's program after leading the U.S. men to Olympic gold in 2008.

The deep and experienced Americans took over the No. 1 ranking in November. Berg said the lessons they learned in Beijing will be paramount in helping them reach their capabilities on the Olympic stage.

"We need to control our emotions and our side of the court," she said. "We can't be overconfident. We need everyone to perform. Being able to manage our emotions and do what we came to do will be our biggest challenge.'

They will be tested quickly, with a game against No. 2 Brazil in pool play Monday. Berg described the Olympics as a "business trip'' earlier this week and noted the players are bypassing sightseeing and other fun activities to rest their bodies and prepare their minds.

That has impressed McCutcheon. "I like that our team is aspiring to be the best it can be with the hopes of the gold medal," he said. "That's why you should be here. ... I know we have done everything we could over the last four years to be ready for this moment."

That has been Berg's aim. She didn't set out to win an Olympic gold medal when she first began playing. But now that it is within sight, she is determined to end her career with one.

"We've worked hard the last 3 1/2 years to get the gold," she said. "We hope to be in that match again, now that we know what it takes, and do it.

"I can never forget our silver medal and what we accomplished at the last Olympics, because that was incredible. But we have moved on and begun a new story. I'm looking at being No. 1 as a positive; we've earned it, and we're here to prove it. Hopefully we can prove it again in the biggest show we've been in.''

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