Gophers volleyball back to NCAA championships

As Minnesota looks to make a run at a national championship, take a look at some of the most interesting news and notes ahead of this season’s tournament.

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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.

Brendan O'Brien, Sports Reporter

The No. 3 seeded Minnesota volleyball team is looking to make another run in the NCAA volleyball tournament after making it through a delayed and difficult 2021 spring season.

With the tournament just days away, here’s a look at some of the most compelling notes heading into the tournament for the Gophers.

A tournament during the pandemic

Die-hard volleyball fans know that the winter tournament is usually filled with 64 teams and the top seeds have the advantage of hosting the regional semifinals and finals. But this season’s tournament comes with changes due to COVID-19, the most significant being delaying the tournament until the spring.

The tournament has also adopted a bubble format for this season so that teams will play every round in Omaha, Nebraska, and only 48 teams have earned a spot in the field.

Despite earning a top-four seed, the Gophers will not have the typical benefit of hosting matches at Maturi Pavilion. Instead, Minnesota and the other top-16 seeds received a first-round bye and will not play until April 15. The Gophers’ first opponent will be Georgia Tech, whobeat Lipscomb to advance to the second round of the tournament.

“We’ll compensate and adjust as we go along, but it’s unlike anything else we’ve ever done, that’s for sure,” Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon said about the differences of this year’s tournament.

A mixed roster

The Gophers roster is balanced coming into the tournament with players who have and have not had experience playing for the national championship. Four players who garnered heavy playing time during the team’s run to the Final Four last season are back for another chance at a title; that includes Big Ten Player of the Year Stephanie Samedy, Regan Pittman, Adanna Rollins and Rachel Kilkelly.

As seniors, Samedy and Pittman are no strangers to the tournament. Rollins came on particularly strong at this point last season as a sophomore when she led the team in kills during the tournament and was named the most outstanding player of the Austin Region All-Tournament team.

Four other players who have been regulars in the Gophers’ lineup this season — Taylor Landfair, Melani Shaffmaster, Jenna Wenaas and Shea Rubright — have not had the same experience. Landfair, Shaffmaster and Wenaas are all freshmen, while Rubright played in only two tournament sets last season as a freshman for the Maroon and Gold. Nevertheless, all have received plenty of playing time and are not lacking talent, as the Gophers’ freshmen were ranked as the top recruiting class in the country.

The veterans on the team have also passed down feedback from their tournament appearances.

“I think it’s been about sharing feedback from past experiences and also telling them, ‘Hey, it’s win or go home.’ We need to make sure we are on our game, giving it our all. We’re not just waiting for the opponent to decide how we’re going to show up,” Samedy said.

A depleted back row

Minnesota will most likely be playing tournament matches without C.C. McGraw. The junior libero has been out of the lineup with a lower-body injury and on the sidelines with a brace on her leg. The Gophers finished the last five matches of the season without McGraw and settled on Wenaas playing more time in the back row with Kilkelly, but they will miss her leadership and skill she brings to the team. McGraw averaged a little over three digs per set in last season’s tournament.

A switch to nonconference

The Big Ten was touted as one of the toughest conferences all season, and it showed on Selection Sunday when six teams from the conference — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Purdue, Ohio State and Penn State — were all ranked within the top-16 seeds.

After playing a spring, conference-only season, the Big Ten led all other conferences with the most teams in the field, followed by the Pac-12 with five teams and the ACC with four. This marks the 28th consecutive NCAA tournament where the conference has had at least six schools in the field.

Minnesota was tested against Big Ten opponents in February, with six consecutive matches against the Boilermakers, Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers. However, now in the tournament, the earliest the Gophers would play a Big Ten opponent would be in the national semifinals.

If the Gophers were to advance past the second round, the three other seeded teams they could face further down the line include a pair of Pac-12 schools in No. 6 Washington and No. 14 Utah along with No. 11 Louisville. If Minnesota and Louisville met, it would be the second year the two programs played in the regional finals, as the Gophers swept the Cardinals last season in Austin, Texas.

But as they have been doing all year, the Gophers avoid looking too far into the future.

“We’ve definitely talked a lot about taking it day to day just because we don’t know what to expect. Tomorrow might be a totally different, new story. I think just appreciating the days we do have to compete, to practice, and just have an appreciative spirit,” Samedy said.