By Bruce Leonard

Fall/Winter 2003

Gophers Head Volleyball Coach Mike Hebert never tires of telling his favorite Cassie Busse story. "The very first time we put Cassie in a pressure filled situation was at Penn State in her freshman year," says Hebert. "She was so petrified that she allowed a ball to be passed over the net and land right behind her without ever making a move for it. We joke about it now because it illustrates how far she has come. It’s really an extraordinary story."

Extraordinary indeed. Three years after being too scared to move, Cassie Busse has developed into one of the very best volleyball players in the nation whose all-court game now petrifies opponents. The 6 foot 2 inch senior is coming off a breakout 2002 campaign that earned her second team All American honors. She led the Gophers in kills and hitting percentage, and the Big Ten in service aces to spearhead the Gophers to their first ever conference title, a school record 32 wins, a spot in the sweet 16 of the NCAA Tourney, and a number 11 final national ranking. "Last year was wonderful in so many ways, but last year was last year. I have so much more too work on," says Busse. "I want to improve the accuracy of my line shots. My jump serving needs to get better, and we’ve put in a new defensive scheme that we all need to work on."

What’s this? A star player who believes she can always get better and is not afraid to do what it takes? Sounds a little too good to be true. But it’s not according to Hebert who says if he were going to create the perfect volleyball player, he wouldn’t have very far to look. "Cassie comes equipped with the total physical package. She’s not only tall, but she’s broad shouldered, has big hands, long arms, and is strong as an ox. Throw in her work ethic and she’s just a dream player to coach."

"I love the thrill of the kill...To be able to put an end to a rally in such an emphatic manner is a huge rush. It energizes our team, deflates the other, plus it really gets the crowd at the sports pavilion going."
And a nightmare to play against. Especially up at the net where the Gophers’ tri captain enjoys the game the most. "I love the thrill of the kill," she says with an obvious gleam in her eye. "To be able to put an end to a rally in such an emphatic manner is a huge rush. It energizes our team, deflates the other, plus it really gets the crowd at the sports pavilion going."

Busse’s ability to hit the kill shot or secure the service ace is equal parts talent and good old-fashioned hard work. Her work ethic formed years ago while growing up on the family farm outside Prior Lake. "We raised ostriches, horses, cattle, you name it, and I was expected to pull my fair share. That meant a lot of manual labor making sure the animals were fed, the pens cleaned. Nothing glamorous, but it taught me the value of hard work, and how that can translate into success on the court."

"As good as Carrie is, I believe she can get better at everything," says Hebert, who again will test his star player’s work ethic. "She can improve as a blocker. Blocking is all about vision, kind of like a linebacker in football. You have people running all over and you have to pick out the right place to be. Her passing of the ball can get better, ball control, receiving the serve. All that can improve. That’s what I expect."

The opposite hitter has her own set of expectations. "I try not to put too much pressure on myself, but I don’t like walking off the court knowing I didn’t give my best for my team. Whether we win or lose, just knowing I played my best and was there for my team, that’s what I expect out of myself."

That team-first attitude has not been lost on the rest of the Gophers. "Cassie is a classic case of someone who leads by example," says defensive specialist Lisa Reinhart, who also doubles as Busse’s roommate. "We see how hard she works in practice and that rubs off on us. She’s usually pretty quiet. She’s not going to get in someone’s face, but you definitely know when she needs something done."

What Busse and the rest of the Gophers need to get done now is win another Big Ten title. Last season’s success raised the bar for all involved. "We know we have a big target on our backs," says Busse. "But this team has such tremendous chemistry. They are a great bunch of girls, and as long as we stick together good things will continue to happen. I’m just glad I get to go to battle with them."

Volleyball is a game that blends power with pace, size with speed, and teamwork with togetherness. It’s a game where teams spend hours of practice turning the individual components into one cohesive on-court family. But in the case of Gopher newcomers Jen and Kelly Bowman, the family part is already there. "We’re best friends," says Kelly. "We go to each other for anything. It’s like the combo thing. You get one, you get the other, and we both work so well together."

"We know what each other is thinking and doing," adds Jen. "It’s J-Bo and K-Bo. Sometimes people get us confused, but it’s J-Bo and K-Bo."

Born three years apart, the Bowman sisters grew up together becoming the closest of friends. They did everything together. When Jen started playing and starring in volleyball at Osseo, Kelly soon followed. "I wanted to play volleyball because Jen played volleyball. It was pretty much ‘let’s be like Jen.’"

They actually played together for three years in high school, but that looked like the end of the run. When Jen graduated, she decided to play at Northern Illinois where she enjoyed great success winning the 2001 Mid-American Conference player of the year award, the first sophomore to ever win the honor. She then transferred to Long Beach State. Going west might have been great advice for Horace Greeley to hand out, but it turned out to be a huge mistake for Bowman. "I was used to Minnesota nice and having my family around for everything. When the chance came to come back home, I couldn’t wait."

"She’s gone through a lot with all the different colleges," says a sympathetic Kelly. "I’m just so happy to have her back. Everyone’s like, ‘isn’t it annoying to have your big sister around?’ Not at all."

So now the Bowman sisters are back together, enjoying their time together, even if there initially won’t be much playing time together. Kelly will see a lot of action. The freshman setter, who Head Coach Mike Hebert calls "an extremely gifted player,” will see a lot of action while pushing starter Lindsay Taatjes for playing time. But Jen can only practice while she sits out a transfer year before becoming eligible to actually play next year. "It will be tough to watch the matches," admits Jen. "But the fact that we can still share this together, I’m really excited. And next year will be great!"

-Bruce Leonard