Gophers volleyball slated for rematch with Florida in Sweet Sixteen

Minnesota defeated Florida 3-0 earlier this season.

Libero Rachel Kilkelly prepares to serve the ball during the game against the Fairfield Stags in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Maturi Pavilion on Friday, Dec. 6.

Sydni Rose

Libero Rachel Kilkelly prepares to serve the ball during the game against the Fairfield Stags in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Maturi Pavilion on Friday, Dec. 6.

Nolan O'Hara

After a thrilling five-set win over Creighton, the Gophers’ volleyball team is turning their attention to No. 10 Florida, who they see Friday in their Sweet Sixteen matchup. 

For Minnesota, the comeback win over Creighton means another weekend awaits, so they will not be able to dwell on the emotions of their electrifying win for long.

“Obviously you’re happy to still be playing,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “We got to take care of the task at hand and get ready for the weekend.” 

Florida is a team the Gophers have some familiarity with. Minnesota saw the Gators in their fourth match of the season, which the Gophers took 3-0. Florida advanced to the Sweet Sixteen after winning straight-set victories over Alabama State and UCF. 

The Gophers’ defense was the key to their victories over Fairfield and Creighton. Both teams served well in their matches against Minnesota, something the Gophers countered with strong defensive play, making good first contact and limiting both teams at the net. Blocking, a central focus for the Gophers throughout the season, came up big again at the end of the Creighton match. It allowed them to evade match point.

“One thing I can do is put my hands back into the court. Just be low and over, don’t think about anything else, just put your hands back in the court. And I guess it works. Hugh [McCutcheon]’s been telling me that for about five years now,” middle blocker Taylor Morgan joked. 

“All leading up to that moment,” McCutcheon added.

Fittingly, a block was also the Gophers’ final point of the match. Now, with Minnesota’s attention turned towards Florida, another tough serving team, the focus on first contact and blocking remains, but a renewed focus on offensive production also arises. 

“Like most of these games, it comes down to the serve and pass part of it. I think they’re a good serving team. Our ability to take care of first contact matters, and obviously we have to find ways to side out,” McCutcheon said. “I still like us on the defensive end against most teams, but we got to produce on the offensive end as well.” 

Minnesota struggled offensively against Creighton, particularly in the middle three sets. That led McCutcheon in the fourth to return to the 6-2, a two-setter system the Gophers ran for much of the season while they were missing senior setter Kylie Miller. It is a system McCutcheon does not fear turning to in a moment’s notice. 

“If circumstance dictates that we need to roll it out then we’re certainly not afraid to,” he said. “Nice to have that string to our bow should we need it moving forward.” 

For the fifth-straight season, the Gophers find themselves in the Sweet Sixteen, but know that any moment in the tournament could be their last.

“You always want to say you don’t want to think about it, but that’s the thought in the NCAA tournament is that you lose this game, your season’s over,” Morgan said. “You have to claw, scratch, bite your way, you got to do what you go to do to make sure that doesn’t happen. And we do a pretty good job with the pressure.”