Santa Clara transfers find family in new teammates

Alexandra Palmer and Dana Knudsen transferred from Santa Clara to Minnesota for this season. Both have excelled in the Gophers’ starting lineup.

Middle blocker Dana Knudsen spikes the ball against Nebraska on Nov. 16 at the Sports Pavilion.

Bridget Bennett

Middle blocker Dana Knudsen spikes the ball against Nebraska on Nov. 16 at the Sports Pavilion.

Megan Ryan

Gophers senior middle blocker Dana Knudsen and junior setter Alexandra Palmer didn’t plan on transferring together.

But both players ended up at Minnesota this season after three years with Santa Clara in the West Coast Conference.

“[It] honestly didn’t even really click once I decided to come to Minnesota,” Palmer said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Dana is going to Minnesota, too.’ What a great deal that worked out to be.”

Knudsen decided to transfer a few months before Palmer did. Knudsen graduated from Santa Clara last spring and had a fifth year after redshirting her freshman season with a rolled ankle.

“I was ready to go somewhere else,” Knudsen said. “Santa Clara was really fun, but it’s a small school, and I was ready to go out and see the big, bad world.”

Palmer also  received a medical redshirt from her freshman season, when she fractured her wrist.

“I wanted to go somewhere else and try to extend my volleyball career even more,” Palmer said.

While Palmer insisted she and Knudsen had transferred independently, she compared continuing to play with Knudsen to a Christmas present.

“It’s been great, of all people, having Palmer come with me,” Knudsen said, “because we already had a lot of experience playing together.”

New system, no problem

Both Knudsen and Palmer said the main reason they came to Minnesota was their future teammates.

“Seeing how devoted they were to not only the program but to each other … I just have felt a great connection right when I stepped on campus,” Palmer said.

Palmer also had a family connection — her second cousin, freshman defensive specialist Kalysta White, is a walk-on with the Gophers this season.

Knudsen said she identified with the dedication of Gophers players.

“I want a team that wants to battle together,” she said.

Head coach Hugh McCutcheon said he was impressed with Knudsen’s ability to learn a new system so quickly.

“Trying to learn a new system … and have to adjust to a much different role than the one she had in Santa Clara was a significant challenge,” McCutcheon said. “But to her credit, she’s embraced that [and] found lots of ways to contribute to our team.”

Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said Knudsen was eager to learn during the first summer practice sessions.

“She was very open-minded about everything, and she asked my personal thoughts,” Dixon said. “So I came in early to open gyms and helped her [with] blocking, footwork and things like that.”

Palmer also had the challenge of dictating play on the court as a setter with an entirely new team.

“[To] have to adjust to a bunch of new hitters, I think she’s done remarkably well,” McCutcheon said. “As the starting setter, she’s leading our offense and getting better and better as the season goes on.”

Dixon said Palmer makes the hitters’ jobs easier.

“I really like hitting off of Palmer, especially because she is so vocal,” Dixon said. “If you don’t kill the ball right away or something, she’s very urgent to [say], ‘Oh what’s wrong with the set? What can I do better? What can I do to help you?’”

Knudsen and Palmer quickly earned starting positions with the Gophers. Palmer leads the team with more than 1,000 assists this season, while Knudsen is second in blocks with 87. Knudsen also ranks second among the hitters in hitting percentage at .393.

“I definitely didn’t expect to start,” Knudsen said. “I chose here because there was going to be challenges — Tori Dixon and Katherine Harms up in my face all day — and that’s what I wanted.”

Trust on the court

After their redshirt seasons at Santa Clara, both Knudsen and Palmer started immediately. As a result, the two clocked a lot of playing time together.

“I had Dana the majority of the time in the rotations,” Palmer said. “We had a good connection. … We just really trust each other on the court.”

At Santa Clara, Knudsen earned multiple honors. She made the WCC All-Freshman team and later the All-WCC First Team, among other honors. Palmer was an honorable mention on the WCC All-Academic Team.

Their team didn’t stand out nearly as much. The Broncos haven’t made an NCAA tournament since 2008. In the three years Knudsen and Palmer played together, Santa Clara finished fifth, sixth and seventh in the WCC.

But the two said they didn’t leave because of their team’s poor results.

“I just decided to get out of California,” Palmer said. “I like the idea of ‘Minnesota nice.’ Coming from Orange County, it’s nice to get out of the material world.”

Knudsen said she wanted to attend graduate school at a different university as well as set herself up for an international playing career after college.

Awkward and Tuna

Dixon said at first Knudsen and Palmer can seem shy.

“But then once you get them on the court or in a big group situation — a little dance party in the locker room — they go absolutely crazy,” Dixon said.

The Gophers gave nicknames to both of the newbies. Palmer is called Awkward Palmy because “I laugh and blush with everything,” she said.

Knudsen said the name fits her teammate.

“You can make her awkward by saying, like, peanuts,” Knudsen said. “She’ll freak out. It’s weird.”

Knudsen’s nickname has evolved over the season. At first it was Duna, but it has since transformed into Tuna.

“For no apparent reason,” Knudsen said. “And I’ve had all the nicknames in the book, and I’ve never gotten that one.”

Joking aside, Palmer said she thinks the chemistry on this team is something special.

“I’ll never be around, I think, a greater group of girls and coaches,” Palmer said. “It’s a family away from home. It’s amazing.”