Gophers learn from weeklong trip to Japan

Minnesota trained with the All-Japan University team over spring break.

Minnesota outside hitter Daly Santana hits the ball on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, against Indiana at the Sports Pavilion.

Daily File Photo, Bridget Bennett

Minnesota outside hitter Daly Santana hits the ball on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, against Indiana at the Sports Pavilion.

Sam Kraemer

Spring break for the Gophers didn’t exactly amount to free time on a beach somewhere south of Minneapolis.

Instead, the team flew 12 hours across the world to train and compete at the National Training Center in Japan from March 14-22.

The trip provided head coach Hugh McCutcheon an early look at his team for the upcoming season, and he said he was pleased with Minnesota’s quality of play this early in the spring.

“I think the thing that was most impressive was that there were lots of people that contributed significantly,” McCutcheon said. “Overall, the level [of play] was really good for us.”

The University of Minnesota was the first United States collegiate team to play at the training center, thanks in part to its coaching staff — volunteer coach Koichiro Kanno and director of operations Nao Ikeda both have ties to the Japanese Volleyball Association.

During Kanno’s time with the Gophers, Ikeda has served as his translator for the players.

But in Japan, when Minnesota and the All-Japan University team shared a joint practice, the teams found a way to communicate on their own.

“There was a lot of charades,” McCutcheon said. “It was a nice exercise in nonverbal communication … with high fives and pointing; they figured it out.”

McCutcheon said he enjoyed the practice alongside Japan’s team.

“What a wonderful opportunity … to play with people of a different country, culture, language,” he said. “And, you know, the one common theme being the sport that we love and getting out there and playing. I thought it was really cool.”

The teams squared off in three separate scrimmages, with the Gophers winning twice.

The All-Japan University style of play was driven by its stout defense. The team forced the Gophers into long rallies by digging out spikes, covering their hitters and taking smart shots offensively.

Seeing the effort displayed by Japan’s back row players enlightened the Gophers of what is possible, McCutcheon said.

Outside hitter Daly Santana said she thought the intelligence the Japanese hitters displayed stemmed back to their team defense.

“In their own practice, if the hitters want to score a point, they obviously have to be smart and hit a shot since their defense is so good,” she said. “That’s definitely something we can take back with us.”

In addition, the pace of the All-Japan University offense — even when the set was off the net — surprised Santana.

“They had a lot of out-of-system balls that they would set with tempo to their hitters even if the dig was off,” Santana said. “Here, if you get an out-of-system [set], it’s usually high.”

Outside hitter Alyssa Goehner said the Gophers placed a lot of emphasis on translating lessons learned in practice to the scrimmages.

“We took all the things we learned from the training days, and I think we applied them well in the game-like situations,” Goehner said. “It was great to see the team flow as well as we did.”

Now back in the U.S., Goehner seemed confident the trip will show benefits for the Gophers in the fall.

“In the end, we became a lot closer with each other,” Goehner said. “Especially in [women’s] sports, that chemistry on and off the court can go a long way.”