Despite injuries, Gophers off to strong start in Big Ten volleyball

The Gophers’ loss to Wisconsin was their first since Sept. 4.

Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon speaks with his team during a timeout at the Maturi Pavillion on Saturday, Oct. 5. The Gophers defeated Rutgers three sets to one. 

Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon speaks with his team during a timeout at the Maturi Pavillion on Saturday, Oct. 5. The Gophers defeated Rutgers three sets to one. 

Nolan O'Hara

The Gophers volleyball team is off to a strong 5-1 start in Big Ten play despite playing five of the six matches shorthanded. 

The Gophers opened the Big Ten season Sept. 27 in with a sweep over Indiana. It was their sixth straight win, and the team seemed to have hit a rhythm. They took on then-No. 15 Purdue the following night, but the match would be played without a big part of their early season success: setter Kylie Miller. 

Nevertheless, the Gophers cruised to another 3-0 victory behind a 21-kill double-double by opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy and an outstanding defensive performance from libero CC McGraw. McGraw recorded 24 digs in the match. In her first match taking over for Miller, sophomore Bayley McMenimen also had a double-double with 45 assists and 12 digs.

Miller hasn’t seen action since the Big Ten season opener in September. Unfortunately for Minnesota, in their next match against Iowa, they would also be without McGraw. Still, once again, the Gophers cruised to another victory, taking the match 3-1. They took another four-set victory without Miller and McGraw in the lineup against Rutgers. Freshman Rachel Kilkelly had 13 digs in the match in what was her second collegiate start. 

Gophers players have credited their shorthanded success to preparation. They practice without a divide between starters and reserves. 

“We just think it’s a more effective way to train,” said head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “If we mix and match, maybe there’s a little more parody in the gym, maybe we develop some all-around strength as a team. When we get to situations like we’ve been facing, it seems to have paid some dividends.”

It continued to pay dividends when the Gophers took on No. 17 Illinois. McGraw returned for the Gophers in the victory, but they were again without Miller. McMenimen continued to produce for Minnesota from the setting position with 37 assists. The Gophers kept their streak alive despite dealing with injury. The lack of divide between starters and reserves remained effective methodology for Minnesota. 

“At the end of the day, I think making blanket decisions about the role of somebody or the impact they can have on a team in August, and holding on to that definition of that person through December is doing everybody a huge disservice,” McCutcheon said. “This is your role today, but if you work hard it might change tomorrow. I think that’s an important part of any team, that there’s this meritocracy, that people can earn the right to get out there and do their job.” 

The Gophers hit their first road block of the conference season Sunday, losing to then-No. 7 Wisconsin. It was the team’s first loss since Sept. 4. Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team without a loss in conference play. 

“You get the lessons learned, and you move on. There’s no time to wallow too much,” McCutcheon said. 

Minnesota turns their focus to Northwestern and Illinois this weekend. They will look to build on their strong start to the Big Ten season. 

“I try not to have too many expectations, but I think we’re in a reasonable spot,” McCutcheon said. “Certainly, in light of some of the issues we’ve had with injury, I feel like we’re doing pretty well. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m proud of the way the team’s competed and the resilience they’ve shown under some more challenging conditions. Hopefully our best is yet to come.”