Minneapolis, MN (U-WIRE) -- From 2000-03, Cassie Busse was a name synonymous with Minnesota volleyball, but this season, the name Busse has given way to Erin Martin, Paula Gentil, Trisha Bratford and the rest of the fifth-ranked Gophers.
Ask this year's Gophers about Busse, however, and they'll tell you she's still a big reason for their success, while smiling in her direction.
That's because Busse, who finished her career as a two-time All-American and led Minnesota to its first Final Four in program history last season, is a regular at Gophers practices. She is part of a scout team that includes volunteer coach Tim Reckmeyer and men's volleyball club player Steve Koscinski.
The trio, which Minnesota coach Mike Hebert dubbed the "monsters at the net," has done its best to make practice tough on the Minnesota starters. Hebert said tough practice equals wins, and that's just what the Gophers (21-3, 10-2 Big Ten) have done.
"Ask any coach in any team sport and they'll say you can only compete on match night at the level that you're able to practice," Hebert said. "It's really important to find people like Cassie and Steve, and we've done that."
Busse, who plays outside hitter, and Koscinski, who plays middle blocker, are new additions to the practice squad this season.
Koscinski, who has played volleyball for eight years, said he was excited to join the scout team in August because Minnesota doesn't offer a varsity men's program.
Martin said playing against men such as Koscinski and Reckmeyer presents an interesting challenge, although she said they're not all that different from the rest of her competitors.
"They just jump really, really high and hit the ball really, really hard," Martin said. "But that's really the only difference. It's the same game."
Although Koscinski said he catches some flack from the other men's volleyball club players for playing against women, he said it has been fun and challenging to practice against the Gophers.
"My friends and roommates don't follow volleyball very much, but when (Minnesota) was No. 1, everyone was going crazy," Koscinski said. "It's been a lot of fun, but when I first came here, I had a lot of trouble playing with them."
For Busse, the biggest challenge is playing against the team.
After playing alongside outside hitters Martin and Bratford for three seasons, Busse now practices across the net from her former teammates. That change took some getting used to for all parties.
"It's hard, because you're so used to playing with her, and all of a sudden she's trying to block me or I'm trying to block her," Martin said. "It's weird to see what the other side of the net was seeing."
Although Busse said it is also difficult to sit back and watch Minnesota during matches, she said she enjoys practicing while finishing school and preparing for another professional season. Busse is finishing her undergraduate degree after playing professionally in Puerto Rico in spring.
"This program has done so much for me, so it feels great to be able to give back and help out," Busse said. "Playing against a highly competitive team like this definitely keeps me in shape as well."
As the Gophers prepare for easily their biggest weekend of matches this season - No. 6 Penn State and No. 7 Ohio State - they will rely on their practice foes more than ever.
Busse said she is anxious to help the team prepare for the weekend, but she has no reservations about her predictions for the end of the season.
"They're definitely going back to the Final Four," she said. "They better."
(C) 2004 Minnesota Daily via U-WIRE
Former Gophers star Cassie Busse, center, shares a laugh with Trisha Bratford during Minnesotaís volleyball teamís practice Tuesday.