One clear indicator that a college program has reached elite status—besides a plethora of wins—is that the venue it plays is considered holy ground by many. 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 at the Diet Coke Classic in the first meeting between the two events, there are great challenges for both the coach and the players.
Tommys (1-7) will face the country’s No 11 team. His coach, Than Pham, will face the real chance that his players will be intimidated by their surroundings and intimidated by their opponent.
“It’s human nature,” Pham said. “It would be foolish for me not to expect that.”
Still, both the coach and the player can’t wait for it.
When Gophers Associate Head Coach Matt Hawke reached out and asked if Tommy 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 for so many of his players.
“I think a lot of our players would dream of being a part of that Gopher program,” said Fran Egan, a senior at the Minneapolis Washburn. “But that was not in the cards for us. So, getting the challenge of going and playing the gophers in the pav is going to be fantastic.”
Tommy’s Grace Entepa, a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall, has seen countless games at the Pavilion over the years, and is among those who grew up dreaming of playing there someday.
He said, “I am excited to get this opportunity. “I want to come out of this, taking pride in the way we played. Just play Tommy Volleyball – work hard, compete, bring as many fights as you can, win or lose together. ”
Pham said that he has been a fan of the Gophers program for years.
“They have always produced excellent women who are not only good at volleyball but are productive citizens,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with quite a few gophers in the camps, and the products they produce are something I admire and hopefully can emulate someday.”
Pham said that his biggest achievement in the first three weeks of the season is the level of talent he has seen on the other side of the court.
“I didn’t expect the opposing teams to be as physically impressive as they are,” he said. “It’s been a nice learning curve for us. What we’re seeing are different kids. These Division I teams are solid. They’re big, they’re fast, they’re well trained.”
This is especially true for Tommy’s next opponent. The Gophers have seven players who are 6-foot-2 or taller, including two 6-5. The Tommys have one from Hill-Murray – 6-2 freshman Emma Leinman, who hasn’t seen any action yet.
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 is not quite ready to face a team like the Gophers,” Pham said. “But it’s going to be a learning experience that’s going to be invaluable. I’m excited to see what our team does.”
Tommy averaged 26 wins during Pham’s 17 years as head coach, so losing has been a new experience for senior players like Egan and Anitipa.
“With the transition to Division I, we 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.”
The chances of success for Tommy on Thursday won’t be measured by the scoreboard.
“My goal will be that every player who steps on the court for St Thomas can feel good about the game they played against U of M,” said Egan.
Antipa offered: “The result is not what is most important. If we can play well and be proud of the way we play, that’s what matters most to us.”