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.