One clear indicator that a college program has reached elite status — aside from piling up wins — is that the venue it plays in is considered by many to be hallowed ground. Such is the case with Gophers volleyball.
So, when St. Thomas makes the pilgrimage across the river on Thursday to play the Gophers at the Maturi Pavilion in the Diet Coke Classic in the first-ever meeting between the two programs, major challenges await both coach and players.
The Tommies (1-7) will be facing the No. 11 team in the nation. Their coach, Thanh Pham, will be facing the real chance that his players will be in awe of their surroundings and intimidated by their opponent.
“That’s human nature,” Pham said. “For me not to expect it would be foolish.”
Yet, both coach and players can’t wait to get after it.
When Gophers Associate Head Coach Matt Houk reached out and asked if the Tommies would be interested in playing in the tournament, Pham didn’t hesitate to say yes. He knew what the opportunity would mean for the program, and what it would mean to so many of his players.
“I think a lot of our players would dream about being a part of that Gopher program,” said Fran Egan, a senior from Minneapolis Washburn. “But it just wasn’t in the cards for us. So, to get the challenge to go and play the Gophers at the Pav is going to be awesome.”
The Tommies’ Grace Anetipa, a senior from Cretin-Derham Hall, has watched countless games at the Pavilion over the years, and is among the many who grew up dreaming of playing there someday.
“I’m excited about getting this opportunity,” she said. “I just want to come out of it proud of the way we played. Just playing Tommie volleyball — working hard together, competing, bringing as much fight as we possibly can, win or lose.”
Pham said he has been an admirer of the Gophers program for years.
“They’ve always produced outstanding women that not only are good in volleyball but are productive citizens,” he said. “I have been fortunate enough to work with quite a few Gophers at camps, and the product they produce is something I admire and hopefully can emulate someday.”
Pham said his biggest takeaway from the first three weeks of the season has been the level of talent he’s seen on the other side of the court.
“I didn’t expect the opposing teams to be as physically imposing as they are,” he said. “That’s a good learning curve for us. There are different kids than what we’ve been seeing. These Division I teams are solid. They’re big, they’re quick, they’re well-coached.”
That’s especially true of the Tommies’ next opponent. The Gophers have seven players who are 6-foot-2 or taller, including two who are 6-5. The Tommies have one — 6-2 freshman Emma Lienemann from Hill-Murray, who has yet to see any action.
The Gophers have split their first six matches, but all three losses have come against teams ranked in the Top 10.
“I know our team isn’t quite prepared to face a team like the Gophers,” Pham said. “But it’s gong to be a learning experience that is going to be invaluable. I’m excited to see what our team does.”
The Tommies have averaged 26 wins a seasons during Pham’s 17 years as head coach, so for seniors such as Egan and Anetipa, losing has been a new experience.
“With the transition to Division I, we kind of knew it was going to be challenging,” Egan said. “I think we’re improving every day. I think we’re doing everything we can to get better.”
Success for the Tommies on Thursday likely will not be measured by the scoreboard.
“My goal would be that every player who steps foot on the court for St. Thomas can feel good about the game they played against the U of M,” Egan said.
Offered Antetipa: “Outcome isn’t what’s most important. If we can play well and be proud of how we play, that’s what’s most important to us.”