‘It’s a weird time’: Gophers volleyball season hindered by pandemic and injuries

Minnesota saw its fifth postponed match in four weeks come against Wisconsin this week.

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Kamaan Richards

The Gophers huddle to celebrate defeating Oral Roberts three sets to none at the Maturi Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

Brendan O'Brien

Before starting the 2021 season, Gophers volleyball head coach Hugh McCutcheon couldn’t describe what coaching during the pandemic is like.

At this point, Minnesota had not played any matches and only practiced in the fall. McCutcheon did not want to project how he and his team would handle the challenges of playing this season until they had to face them.

Other than three consecutive weeks of play against ranked opponents Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska, the Gophers did not appear to have any major issues due to COVID-19 in their first 10 matches of the season. Things were looking up, as Minnesota had not missed a match, had a 9-1 record and the AVCA Coaches Poll ranked the team in the top-five.

From that point, however, McCutcheon has come to better understand the oddness and frustration that comes with playing this season, as COVID-19 has reared its ugly head. In the last 26 days, Minnesota has only played two of its seven scheduled matches, while health and safety concerns for the Gophers or their opponents postponed the other five. The most recent postponement came this week when the Gophers were set to take on Wisconsin.

“It’s a weird time, and this is just another manifestation of just how clunky [playing a season in a pandemic] is. Everyone’s trying to do the best they can. As much we want to compete, you have to respect what the medical professionals tell you,” McCutcheon said.

Minnesota’s medical team advised Thursday’s match be postponed for two main reasons: ongoing COVID-19 restrictions and injuries. While the Gophers had no new COVID-19 cases, some players were still in the COVID protocol and unable to compete. Pair that with players who had sustained injuries, and the Gophers would have had to play with a condensed roster with some players in different positions.

“If someone got hurt [Thursday], I’m not sure we would have been able to make substitutions. [The roster] was pretty lean,” McCutcheon said.

Thursday’s matchup against the top-ranked Badgers was supposed to entail major implications regarding the Big Ten regular-season championship. The fourth-ranked Gophers would have had the chance to knock Wisconsin from its spot atop the conference at 10-0, while the Badgers would have been able to significantly increase their odds of a second consecutive conference championship with a win.

McCutcheon said the team was disappointed with the news of another postponement but acknowledged this was something the players were prepared for coming into 2021.

“It’s frustrating and atypical. We discussed at the beginning of the year that this wasn’t going to be linear, so this is just another bump in the road,” McCutcheon said. “The group was disappointed, but they understand and appreciate the concern for their safety and wellbeing. We’re in a pandemic, and we’re trying to manage a lot of variables.”

At the time of this article’s publication, Sunday’s match against Wisconsin at Maturi Pavilion is still on as scheduled. The Gophers are interested in playing any of their postponed matches if an opportunity arises; While nothing has been set in stone, McCutcheon said making up the match against the Badgers could be possible based on the distance between the schools.