Column: Gophers volleyball flashes potential amid loss

by David Nelson

Five underclassmen trotted onto the Sports Pavilion floor Saturday night to start against an opponent that has dominated college volleyball for the past decade.

Reigning national champion Penn State players walked out onto the court looking as confident as they did when they left 10 months ago after defeating Minnesota in three sets.

And while Minnesota’s loss in the match might have been predictable, the youthful Gophers found a way to stand toe-to-toe with Penn State in the match’s first set, winning 29-27.

The momentum obtained through the gritty win quickly evaporated in the Sports Pavilion’s heat as the Nittany Lions went on to win the next three sets.

“[Penn State’s] very steady, and I think for us to maintain that level of effort and execution is difficult,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “[The younger players] are not used to that required level of consistent effort.”

The Nittany Lions combined to outscore the Gophers 50-28 during the second and third sets.

Minnesota put up a better fight in the fourth set, but it simply couldn’t contain a more experienced Penn State team.

While the Gophers couldn’t recapture the energy they created through the first set, McCutcheon’s team flashed a brilliance that demonstrated where Minnesota might be one year from now, or perhaps even as soon as November.

Coming off a night when she captured a triple-double, sophomore Sarah Wilhite killed 14 balls and dug 14 more — first and second among Minnesota players, respectively.

Sophomore Hannah Tapp contributed six kills and six blocks, and sophomore Katie Schau shelled out 34 assists.

Junior Daly Santana killed 12 balls, contributed two service aces and added 10 digs of her own.

Though none of these stats helped produce a Gophers victory, those in attendance Saturday could see the potential this young team has to offer.

Whether it’s a testament to McCutcheon’s coaching ability or to the talent of the players he recruited, the Gophers own an 11-2 record with just two seniors on a roster of 14.

This is not a finished product, however.

Minnesota narrowly escaped a five-set thriller against Ohio State last Wednesday — a team the Gophers beat twice in straight sets last season.

“[When you’re inexperienced] there’s a tendency to think that once you’ve reached a level of execution that somehow you can just immediately go back to that place and maintain that,” McCutcheon said after the victory against the Buckeyes. “And of course, that’s not always the case.”

In his postgame interviews, McCutcheon acknowledged the team’s youth, but as he probably knows — and as Gophers fans found Saturday — this is a team bursting with potential.