Minnesota vollleyball opens NCAA tourney this weekend

The No. 2 seeded Gophers will play North Dakota in the first round at home Friday.

Gophers outside hitter Sarah Wilhite winds up a spike against Wisconsin on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016 at the Sports Pavilion.

Carter Jones

Gophers outside hitter Sarah Wilhite winds up a spike against Wisconsin on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016 at the Sports Pavilion.

Tommy Sletten

After a long-fought regular season, the No. 1 Gophers volleyball team has earned its place in the upper echelon of college volleyball.

Following four five-set victories against ranked teams to finish the season, Minnesota earned the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament with home court advantage through the regional portion of the tournament.

Minnesota will be joined by North Dakota, Hawaii and USC in the first two rounds at the Sports Pavilion.

The Gophers will face North Dakota in the first round, a team that they defeated earlier in the season 3-1. But Minnesota will see a whole new team from the Horizon League champions — one that has grown over the course of the season.

“They’re a good team. Hopefully we’ll play a little better [this time],” said head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “I would expect that they’re better too, but we’re prepared to battle at home.”

Should the Gophers advance, they will play the winner of the Hawaii and USC match. Minnesota defeated Hawaii last season 3-1 in the regional round to advance to the Final Four.

The Gophers will rely on their depth throughout the tournament, particularly in senior outside hitter Sarah Wilhite.

Wilhite was named the Big Ten Player of the Year this week, the fifth Minnesota player to receive the award. She was also named National Player of the Week after a 42-kill week against Nebraska and Wisconsin.

“This year she definitely took on that leadership role and embraced it,” said sophomore setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson. “She’s someone who we can all turn to when things get tough. As a setter, giving her the ball in those tough moments, I know that she’ll put it away.”

Seliger-Swenson was not without accolades as well, as she earned Big Ten Setter of the Year, a follow-up to winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year last year.

The staff and players credited a lot of their success to the fans who have come to see them at the Sports Pavilion, where they’ve posted a 13-0 record this season.

“The atmosphere here is unlike any other,” Wilhite said. “The fans do a great job at picking up our energy and cheering loud when we’re winning, but also cheering loud when we’re losing to get the momentum towards our side.”

Minnesota’s last two home matches were sellout victories against No. 2 Nebraska and No. 3 Wisconsin.

The spark from Minnesota’s fans will hopefully continue as the team makes a run for the national championship.

“The fans have been great and we really appreciate their support. I think if people feel connected to what we’re doing, that’s great,” McCutheon said. “The reason for that would be that our athletes are authentic. They’ve worked hard and they’re out there competing. If you like volleyball, it’s pretty good to watch.”