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Gophers volleyball simplifying perspective in odd season

Minnesota was excited to get back on the court against Michigan State last weekend, but the team is focusing on one day at a time during a season of uncertainty.
Image by Shannon Doyle
Opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy spikes the ball to earn a point for the Gophers in Maturi Pavilion on Sunday, Jan. 24. The Gophers won against Michigan State Spartans with a score of 3-0.

It took over 400 days to get to this point for the Minnesota volleyball team.

Two wins in as many matches against Michigan State and the Gophers are off to a strong start to the 2021 season. Getting to this point, however, was no easy task.

Flashback to December 2019, when the Gopher squad lost in the semifinal to eventual champion Stanford in front of thousands of fans. Everyone knew the loss was a disappointing end to an overall successful 2019 campaign, but no one predicted what was to come after.

Roughly 13 months of no competition. A different practice schedule in the fall. Daily COVID-19 testing. Online classes. Little to no other social interactions. And now follow that up with a conference-only schedule, with only family and media members in the stands.

All of this adds up to an unusual spring setup. The Gophers still have significant and achievable goals for this season. A Big Ten title, Final Four appearance and NCAA championship all might be within reach for this deep Minnesota team ranked No. 7 in the AVCA poll. And to reach these heights, everyone in the program is living by one mantra for the rest of the season.

“Think positive. Test negative,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said.

This will be key in 2021. The team was obviously excited about the opportunity to compete during the pandemic, even if it meant delaying the season until the spring semester. But with the uncertainty that comes with COVID-19, the Gophers are prioritizing a true “one day at a time” mentality. This seems only logical in a world where a match might get canceled the day before it is scheduled due to a coronavirus outbreak within a team.

“We got together so many times to reinvent our goals and reset them because it’s changed so much,” middle blocker Regan Pittman said. “I think our biggest thing is having a flexible mindset of what our goals are. There’s so many unexpected [things].”

While there are several challenges to this philosophy and competing during a pandemic in general, it also comes with some benefits for some players. Opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy sees the situation a little differently and is taking a positive approach.

“For me personally, I think it’s pretty nice to have two main focuses,” Samedy said. “Being able to get school done on my own time and then having volleyball and just being able to focus on that, and not have that much noise is great.”

McCutcheon said there was a significant change in the excitement level of the team when the spring schedule was announced, citing that everyone loves competing. The Gophers clearly had little trouble harnessing their energy to open the season, winning all six sets of the two matches.

But once again, they are not looking too far ahead to the future of the season. For now, Minnesota’s main focus is getting through this week of practice healthy to face Maryland on Friday and Saturday.

“If we ever needed more validation of the concept of one day at a time, it’s this, because I do think if you start to get ahead of yourself it’ll do your head in,” McCutcheon said. “We’re going to try to think positive, test negative and protect our bubble the best we can.”

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