Steeled from the start, U volleyball team gets Baylor rematch in Sweet 16

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  • Hugh McCutcheon
    American volleyball player-coach

The first decent snowfall of the year dusted Minneapolis right about the time the Gophers volleyball team was dusting Stanford over three sets in the NCAA tournament Saturday at Maturi Pavilion to secure a spot in the Sweet 16.

A few hours later, as students slid and reveled down University Avenue, coach Hugh McCutcheon stood in the parking lot gently sending plumes of snow up and off his car.

Good time to talk volleyball, Coach?

It was, and as he moved around the hood to the passenger side window, McCutcheon talked team balance. He said one thing that makes the tournament special is that success has everything to do with developing depth and talent, over the season and over the years.

That felt especially true that night, after every Gophers player on the court had made a major contribution in a win that McCutcheon said may have been the team's best performance of the season.

It also felt like a glimpse into what makes this team tick: a deeply shared belief that there is meaning in collaboration, that growth is shared, and multiform, and independent of results.

Not that they won't take the good results.

"We have these outcome goals that we aspire to that we talk about at the beginning, but connected to those outcomes is a very clear process," McCutcheon said Tuesday. "We also talk about the fact — from Day One — that at some point it's going to get big."

Big would be now: Thursday's matchup with Baylor, the No. 5 overall seed, in the regional semifinals at Madison, Wis.

The Bears were the Gophers' first opponent of the season, during the Big Ten/Big 12 Challenge, which happened to be played in Madison.

Baylor won that match 26-24, 16-25, 25-17, 28-26.

The Gophers started the season 1-3 after also losing in four sets to Texas and Florida in nonconference matches. Those early losses infused a refrain from McCutcheon: In volleyball the choice is pay me now or pay me later.

The Gophers paid early, and now they get a second shot against the Bears to see whether the investment pays dividends.

Stephanie Samedy, a senior opposite hitter fresh off being named the AVCA North Region Player of the Year, said the sentiment isn't just conceptual.

"Having been here a couple of years I have experienced what that meant," she said. "Making a good platform versus swinging out, type of thing. You kind of see how it's really about the little plays that make a difference, especially in the tournament. It's something we talk about, just making sure we're all locked in on trying to make changes and solidifying our game in the tournament."

Redshirt senior middle blocker Katie Myers transferred from Maryland before the pandemic altered the 2020 season. This season she leads the team in blocks (120), is third in aces (27) and is fourth in kills (97) . She said there's no question the ethos of the program has given her tools to create a well-rounded game.

"I really attest my growth to the staff, and myself, too, being able to make those changes," she said. "Coming to Minnesota, I know I wanted to work on my whole game. I have become a better passer, I can actually set the ball now, and the little technique changes that they made when I came here helped me a ton."

The postseason, when McCutcheon values talent and depth most, makes clear why developmental goals matter, incremental as they can be.

NCAA volleyball bracket

Samedy might be the best player in the country, but without talent around her wins are not coming. This week she was named regional player of the year, but teammates CC McGraw, Airi Miyabe, Melani Shaffmaster and Jenna Wenaas also made the all-region team. For Miyabe and Wenaas, it was the first regional award.

"When our teammates are doing things great we all want to celebrate that and encourage that," Samedy said. "It brings energy knowing that they want to help the team win, just because we all want to help the team win. I think it's a whole cycle that that kind of creates."

The cycle keeps churning through a season that has featured more losses, eight, than usual for this program — but, also, it seems, more growth.Getting some payback from those early losses holds narrative appeal, but the Gophers plan to keep the focus internal.

"What we hope is we control as much of what we can — relative to our performance and the way we go about doing things — and then whatever happens, happens," McCutcheon said. "There are elements that we can't control, like the opponent and how they're going to play.

"But just making sure we can be in a position to take responsibility for our stuff and to feel like we're competing to the best of our ability and feel like we're doing the things and saying the things we need to do to help our team win the next point, that's where we want to be. And it feels like we're in that spot right now."

Before the team departed for Madison on Tuesday, McCutcheon's car was parked in his usual spot. Snow was once again falling in waves, and the Gophers coach had hoisted the wipers off his windshield.

Another little improvement to make it through a harsh season.

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