Gophers get perfect start

Minnesota won all four of its weekend matches in straight sets in Alabama.

Minnesota middle blocker Tori Dixon tips the ball over the net against Nebraska on Nov. 16, 2012, at the Sports Pavilion.

Bridget Bennett

Minnesota middle blocker Tori Dixon tips the ball over the net against Nebraska on Nov. 16, 2012, at the Sports Pavilion.

Megan Ryan

The Gophers women’s volleyball team is perfect — for now.

Minnesota’s season started this weekend with nonconference action at the Alabama-Birmingham/Samford tournament. The Gophers dominated with four straight-set wins against the two hosts as well as Jacksonville State and Georgia State.

“The level of volleyball was very good,” said Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “I know that the scores seemed like we were dominant, and I guess in some ways we were, but there was some strong volleyball.”

The Gophers averaged about a 10-point winning margin in each set Friday and Saturday in Birmingham, Ala., with their largest gap coming in a 25-8 first-set victory over Jacksonville State.

McCutcheon said he was happy with his team’s first competitive experience this season and already saw his players making improvements.

And with 10 new players — all freshmen or transfers — on the 19-player roster, the weeks before Big Ten play begins Sept. 25 will involve lots of learning.

“We have a lot of new players on our roster, which is great. We have some good depth. We think that is a significant strength for us,” McCutcheon said, adding that it was good to see his new players in actual competitive action after preseason training.

Setter Alexandra Palmer, a transfer last season from Santa Clara, is now one of just three seniors on the team, along with middle blocker Tori Dixon and outside hitter Ashley Wittman.

Palmer said the preseason camp helped the fairly fresh team bond and made running the offense less of an unknown.

“I didn’t feel like any of them were new. I didn’t feel like any of them were returning,” Palmer said. “I felt like we knew exactly what each other [was] going to do on the court.”

While Palmer said the offense was different without last season’s power hitter Katherine Harms and middle blocker Dana Knudsen’s presence, she said the Gophers were still confident in their first tournament without them.

Dixon and Knudsen formed the core of Minnesota’s blocking last season, but there are now four potential partners for Dixon. Many of them saw playing time this weekend.

Dixon said the new players have been very receptive to the Gophers’ playing and blocking system, making for easy transitions during games.

“The lineup that we ended with is a good fit, obviously, and it’s been working well throughout all the tournament,” Dixon said.

She added that McCutcheon is looking to tweak the lineup throughout the preseason in order to determine which players in which positions work best together.

“It’s a work in progress,” Dixon said. “But I think we got a good start.”

And with 10 new players — all freshmen or transfers — on the 19-player roster, the weeks before Big Ten play begins Sept. 25 will involve lots of learning.