The club room at Williams Arena resembles a lot of meeting spaces at the University of Minnesota, large but not ostentatious, with paneled walls and utilitarian maroon carpeting. That’s where the Gophers volleyball team and about 100 boosters gathered last Sunday to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on ESPNU.
The players pulled up chairs around an overhead flatscreen television while Coach Hugh McCutcheon claimed a table by himself at the back of the room. His assistants sat on the floor along a wall, legs extended, tapping away at their laptops. The players cheered when “Minnesota” appeared on the screen as the tournament’s No. 7 seed, a placing McCutcheon later said was “about right” for a 23-5 team that endured more injuries and lineup shuffling than any since McCutcheon took over in 2012.
The Gophers host NCAA first and second round matches this weekend at Maturi Pavilion. It comes the year after the Gophers were seemingly ordained to breeze into Final Four as the host school — not by them, but their ticket-buying fans. The sting of a four-set, upset loss to Oregon in the NCAA Regional semifinals lingered for months, and McCutcheon was still being asked about it this week.
“The one thing I can say is, it was really hard to get away from it last year,” McCutcheon said. “You go the grocery store and someone wants to chat with you about it — which is great, right, because they care. They’ve got their tickets to the Final Four, and it’s wonderful that we’re (possibly) there too, and all the rest of it. It was just one of those things, that it was probably more present as much through the community as anything else.
“This year is different for a variety of different reasons, and mainly for the team and the stuff we’ve gone through already to get to where we are. Having gone through so many real tests of our ability to compensate and adjust, and show some resiliency, all that stuff. That’s probably the major differentiating factor.”
Start with the roster upheaval. Besides losing All-American setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who graduated, three significant contributors transferred — outside hitter Jasmyn Martin to Florida State, defensive specialist Lauren Barnes to Wisconsin, and backup setter Sara Nielsen to Kansas. Needing to fill a one-year gap between Seliger-Swenson and highly-touted 2020 recruit Melani Shaffmaster, the Gophers brought in Kylie Miller, a senior transfer from UCLA who enrolled in January. Miller quickly built an on-court rapport with the Gophers returning hitters, especially two-time All-American opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy.
McCutcheon’s past teams avoided significant injury problems, but this one couldn’t. Five regulars sat out at least one match. Miller had the worst of it, suffering a concussion in late September that idled her for most of the next two months. How it happened, she won’t say. But it wasn’t her first — that came at UCLA — and she missed 13 of 15 Big Ten matches in the meat of the season. The Gophs went 11-2 without her, both losses to Wisconsin. That decided the conference title: The Badgers finished 18-2 in Big Ten play to Minnesota’s 17-3.
“It was super frustrating and super hard, because I just wanted to be on the court with my team competing,” Miller said. “Head injuries are serious, so I just had to be patient and knew that I was doing everything that I could to get back out there.”
The offense struggled at times without Miller, whose absence forced McCutcheon to alter his substitution pattern. But Miller’s backup, 5-9 sophomore Bailey McMenimen, isn’t tall enough to block effectively, so McCutcheon subbed in a better blocker whenever McMenimen rotated to the front line. In those moments 5-8 freshman Tamara Dolonga subbed in for a different player to set until McMenimen’s position swung to the back row.
A good setter is like a good quarterback, reading the defense, delivering the ball precisely where each hitter likes it. Switching up setters in a match isn’t ideal, especially when injuries leave you scrambling elsewhere. McCutcheon frequently used 10 to 12 players instead of his preferred eight or nine. NCAA teams are allowed 15 substitutions per match, and one night things got so crazy that McCutcheon ran through them all — a first for him.
All that subbing meant less court time for Samedy, whom McCutcheon often took out when McMenimen went in. Samedy played all six rotations her first two seasons as a Gopher. The sight of Samedy on the sidelines cheering on her teammates seemed odd, if not counterproductive.
“I thought Bailey and Tamara did a phenomenal job, and certainly Bailey,” McCutcheon said. “That being said, people coming in, people coming out, there’s a lot of turnover. One of the strengths of having a more stable lineup is just the consistency.”
Miller returned Nov. 22 in a five-set home loss to Nebraska. McCutcheon used Miller and McMenimen the first two sets before going exclusively with Miller from Set 3 on, which allowed Samedy to stay on the court. Miller quickly reestablished herself, and the Gophs closed the regular season by beating Iowa, Rutgers and seven-time NCAA champion Penn State. Minnesota hadn’t won in Happy Valley since 2004, but Samedy’s 21 kills and Miller’s 49 assists and 10 digs keyed the four-set victory.
“I hadn’t practiced for awhile, so I was a little nervous about being rusty,” Miller said. “And I was for the first few days. But we did specific drills that I was able to set the hitters, and keep up that connection. In like a week, I was fine.”
The Gophers approach this postseason without last year’s pressure and expectation, which may help. Seeded teams generally move through the first round with little drama. Heading into Friday’s match with Metro Atlantic champion Fairfield, the Gophers are 22-1 in the first round, 6-0 under McCutcheon. Iowa State or Creighton await the winner in the second round. That winner advances to next weekend’s Austin Regional and a possible showdown with second-seeded Texas. The Longhorns swept the Gophers there in early September.
“We’ve had a pretty up and down season with lineups and everything,” said senior middle blocker Taylor Morgan. “But we’re figuring things out, and we’re connected more than we have ever been in the past. I’m really excited to see what we have in store.”
Miller experienced the vibrant atmosphere of the sold-out The Pav in 2016 as a UCLA freshman, when the Gophers eliminated the Bruins in three tight sets in an NCAA Regional final to advance to the Final Four. She loved it, and remembered the energy when it came time to transfer. Miller can’t wait to dive into that mayhem again.
“Finally, they’ll be on my good side,” she said, smiling.