Growing Into Her Role
Nov. 18, 2008
by Larry Watts
There's an outside hitter trapped inside her 5-foot-4 body just dying to get out.
It took 27 matches for Minnesota junior Christine Tan to collect her first kill of the season. "I think it was a set that actually fell in on the other side of the net," Tan says with a laugh as she recalls her recent achievement at Wisconsin. That kill matches her season-best from each of her past two years with the Golden Gophers.
She may be the smallest player on the Minnesota roster, but this Palm Harbor, Fla. native has no shortcomings when it comes to playing the libero position. She has already been named the Big Ten's defensive player of the week five times this season, the most by any player in the conference in a single season. Her seven weekly honors during her career match former Minnesota standout Nicole Branagh, a 2008 beach volleyball Olympian, for best in school history and stands fourth all-time in the Big Ten.
Thanks to the libero (defensive specialist) position, Tan is proving there is still room for the wee people in a sport where thunderous spikes and massive blocks electrify the fans. But the perfectionists of the sport fully understand the importance of the libero, a position where Tan has surpassed the 500-mark the past two seasons and now stands third on the Gophers'all-time list with 1,331.
"My growth stopped way too early," Tan says. "I was average size when I was around 12, then everyone shot up. But I still like to think I'm the same size as everyone else.
"Everyone laughs when I have to do the vertical test. Hey, I can touch nine feet and get over the net!"
A lover of shoes, Tan says she likes to wear a pair of four-inch heels when she's around her teammates. "That's so I don't get lost in a crowd," she says with a laugh. "It does take a little time to get used to them though."
Tan traces her volleyball roots back when her parents, Felix and Ivonne, moved to the Clearwater area when Christine was 2. Natives of Puerto Rico, her parents were avid volleyball players. Her mother played for the University of Puerto Rico volleyball team.
"They were always dragging my brother and I out to the beach and we hated it," Tan says. "It seemed like we were always on the beach watching our parents play. And they were always bickering because my mom is super competitive."
As Christine and her brother got older, the beach matches often became a family affair. And the bickering intensified.
"We would enter coed tournaments around the area and my dad would always try to hit the ball as hard as he could, which just frustrated my mother and I," she says. "Most of the time he would just hit it into the net instead of making those smart shots. We still go out and play in the sand when I go back home.
"I guess I inherit that competitive nature from my mother. She's always reminding me that she was an outside hitter and she's 5-5. She likes that one-inch advantage."
Tan started out as an outside hitter at the age of 10. But when the libero position was adopted into the sport, she quickly made the transition.
"That really opened the door for shorter players,"' she says. "My mother, who coached me for a few years, was always an advocate for defense. She felt defense was the best part of the game and it was her favorite part. She convinced me that every ball was mine and I had to get it."
It was that love for defense, certainly not the snow, which brought Tan on a recruiting visit to Minnesota. Until that August day, she thought she would probably be playing on the east coast.
"Every time it starts snowing, I ask myself, 'What are you doing up here?"' she says with a laugh. "But I love it and I really love my teammates. Since I came up here in August I didn't know what I was getting into, but you get a warm winter coat, brave the weather until Christmas break and then head back to Florida."
According to Minnesota coach Mike Hebert, the fundamentals Tan learned at such a young age have paid big dividends for the Gophers. Tan, who took over as the team's libero last year, has played in all 93 of her team's matches since her arrival.
"She's a fearless defender," Hebert says of Tan. "She gets balls struck at her that sometimes I just shake my head trying to figure out how she is able to come up with them.
"What really stands out in my mind is how she is able to read the court, like a good outfielder in baseball who knows how to get a jump on the ball. She was a good passer when she came in here and now she's a great passer. We've had a great tradition of ball-control liberos at this school and she's on the same level of the great ones I've had. She's the best in the Big Ten."
"I've always looked up to the liberos (at Minnesota) in the past and have tried to emulate them and uphold the Minnesota tradition," Tan says. "I'm just trying to do my job and any accolades I receive, that's just icing. Winning is enough for me."
Currently ranked 15th nationally, Tan sees a lot of similarities between this year's team and the Gophers squad that reached the Elite Eight two years ago.
"There's a lot of talent here and I think we are peaking at the right time," she says. "Each time out we're gaining more confidence and you never can tell what will happen if we get the right seed."
Majoring in neuroscience, Tan is managing a full plate between her academics and athletics.
"I always liked biology and I'm very interested in eventually doing research on diseases, such as Parkinson's and Huntington's. I have a good family friend who has Parkinson's and that has really motivated me to do this work. I never have been an English or business type of person, so I'll finish this degree and see where it takes me."
And could there be coaching in her future?
"I might like to do that some day, probably at the club level with younger girls. I don't want anything that's too competitive."