Episode 38: Gophers volleyball looks to make another NCAA tournament run

Description: In this week’s episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” our staff discusses the ebb and flow of the Gophers volleyball team’s season, the team’s return to the NCAA tournament and what team’s the Gophers could face on their side of the bracket.

Nolan O'Hara and Brendan O'Brien


INTRO MUSIC PLAYS

NOLAN O’HARA: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” presented by the Minnesota Daily. I’m your host Nolan O’Hara. Here at the University of Minnesota, we just wrapped up spring break and ended just in time to shift gears into the volleyball tournament. The Gophers earned the No. 3 seed in the tournament, which means under this year’s, the way it’s being set up, they received the first-round bye, and they’ll play the winner of Georgia Tech and Lipscomb, which is just about underway. It’ll be on in about 40 minutes here. So they’ll play the winner of that game tomorrow, on Thursday when this podcast will be out. So to discuss a little bit about the tournament, I’m here with Brendan O’Brien, who’s been covering volleyball season for us at the Daily. How are you doing Brendan?

BRENDAN O’BRIEN: I’m doing pretty well. Nolan. Glad to be back with you after spring break.

O’HARA: Yeah, for sure. How was your break?

O’BRIEN: I definitely needed still needed to do some homework during the break too. But just got three more weeks left. And then we’ll be done with everything else. But obviously still covering this team, depending on how far they go.

O’HARA: For sure. Done forever too.

O’BRIEN: Yeah, exactly. Kind of scary, but we’ll see how it goes.

O’HARA: Scary stuff for sure. But it’s gonna be nice to wrap up. And I agree the break was definitely needed. But I am glad to be back and talking about volleyball. You know, they had a media call yesterday that, you know, we’re both on. But to get started here, let’s just talk about, you know, a little recap of the season. I think the last time we talked about volleyball on the podcast, the Gophers were 4-0, so a lot of kind of happened since then. They ended the season on a four-game win streak, you know, a couple of sweeps to close it out. But since the last time you’ve been on the podcast, what have you seen from this team? And what have they been able to do to kind of reach this, you know, No. 3seed in the tournament?

O’BRIEN: Overall for team that I believe is 15-2, it has been somewhat of a roller-coaster season or as like Hugh McCutcheon would say like it’s been filled with plenty of ebbs and flows. After the 4-0 start, they actually hadn’t even lost a set yet. They were still were playing while against really tough, Big Ten competition. And the Big Ten is definitely one of the top conferences in the country. They had in three consecutive weeks, they played matches against Purdue, I believe both those matches went to five sets, they won both of those, then they played against Penn State took care of business there pretty handily. And then took on Nebraska, split the two matches there. But following that, they had to miss two consecutive weeks, due to COVID concerns whether it was in their program or in their opponents’ program. So they weren’t able to play teams like Michigan, Ohio State would have been another really good test for them. Then they got back on the court, played against Illinois, missed one against Wisconsin, again, due to injuries and then COVID. And then it’s kind of been about piecing things together towards the end of the year, making sure that they get a little bit more momentum going towards the tournament. Getting more players accustomed to playing certain roles with different injuries that I know we’re also going to talk about here.

O’HARA: For sure. Yeah, it’s you know, it’s been tough for every sports team this year, it’s been an up and down kind of kind of a year, and you know, comes with those challenges, the cancellations the injuries you know, they got Melani back like you mentioned. So that’s that’s good to see C.C.’s still out as of now, not expecting her to play on Thursday. But I guess overall, how’s the team been able to adjust to these injuries to having multiple match cancellations and what is you know, what have they kind of done in players’ absences?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, the rotation mainly has stayed the same in their last four matches between Northwestern and against Iowa. Obviously, you have players like Stephanie Samedy and Rollins who are their two hitters that will start out the game Pittman and Rubright. There’s some technicalities for who’s the true starter but Pittman usually spends most of the time being the middle blocker. Kilkelly has been in the back row without C.C. in the back row as well. They’ve had to put in our Jenna Wenaas, which is actually interesting because on the Gophers’ roster, she’s listed as a hitter, but I’m sure obviously the Gophers bring in plenty of just overall talented players so they expect different players to fill different roles when needed. Shaffmaster came back as the setter, that’s been an important part of getting their hitters involved offensively again, as well. Also having a little bit more of a defensive presence just because she does. She is a really tall player at 6’3,” the other two setters, I believe, are under six foot.

So in the Wisconsin match when Shaffmaster wasn’t playing, you could tell that they were kind of attacking those two senators when they were out there. And then obviously, Taylor Landfair is just another player that rotates through at the hitting spot. And so overall, it looks like they’ve become much more comfortable in these last four games. With making those adjustments. And rotating players through again, they tried rotating two centers in the Wisconsin match instead of just one like they have with Melani. But but that they you could just tell all night, they were not themselves, and they weren’t really that comfortable. Getting Melani back, they just stuck to one center, they pretty much plugged Jana in to the back row with obviously some minor tweaks into how they rotate through players. But it seems to be going smoothly. The one key thing I would like to add at the end, though, after saying all of that is they were playing Big Ten opponents that are towards the bottom of the conference in Iowa, Northwestern. So that can definitely help build up confidence, but also might not be a perfect test of where this team is at to, right, not the, you know, Nebraska and 10 states and Wisconsin’s that they could eventually see in the tournament, although not for a while, interestingly enough, um, but, you know, the challenge the seasons haven’t stopped since they’ve reached the tournament.

O’HARA: Now, you know, like we talked about earlier, cc is still out for the time being. And, you know, we there’s been some stuff coming out about the conditions of the tournament, too, which, you know, kind of came right after we saw the differences between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. You know, they’ve had a long layoff, they’re trying to test into the bubble there in Omaha, they haven’t been able to take the court McCutcheon said they wouldn’t take the court until Thursday, which is the same day they play a game. I guess, you know, what is kind of coach said about that yesterday on the call, and you know, how has this team been able to respond to all that adversity?

O’BRIEN: I mean, the biggest thing that they’ve been focusing on is just themselves as a team and how they can improve. I know that’s kind of been their mantra, the whole season is not to look too far, and to the future of who they might be playing, things like that. And this year, especially it makes sense, when you’re not sure what’s going to happen. As far as testing goes. As far as just McCutchen, his response to, you know, how this tournament is formatted and kind of set up in a bubble. He definitely, you know, addressed, that there are plenty of differences in how this year would be set up and how they would need to adjust. And they really have just been kind of focusing more on themselves overall, rather than, like the bigger picture of the tournament.

O’HARA: So yeah, I mean, overall, they’ve been responding, you know, pretty well to this adversity, at least from what they’ve been saying. And just as far as how they’ve, you know, been focusing on it, kind of similar to last season to I know, that’s kind of like, what that’s kind of been their, their mantra throughout, you know, probably every year since McCutcheon has been here. They’ve been able to make it, make it through and it’ll be interesting to see how they respond here in the tournament coming up. But, you know, he also recently wrote an article it’ll run tomorrow, same day, this podcast will come out, um, you know, kind of an overview of the tournament, you jotted down some of the key headlines going in, I guess, can you give the cliff notes of that version here? We’ll make sure people read it. Plug the article.

O’BRIEN: Yeah, for sure. There’s pretty much four main sections of the article just kind of previewing what the tournament’s entailing. The first is just how the tournament is formatted differently due to COVID. It’s just far as location seeds, what less teams a lot fewer teams, who is playing who and when they’re going to be playing. The second is just about the Gophers roster. And the mix of experience and youth we talked about the roster before. There’s a lot of different seniors and juniors who have gone through the tournament before but then there’s also a few inexperienced players as well. Just how they will play just without cc in the back row, and then just look ahead at the potential opponents that they could play in their region.

O’HARA: What do you think are some keys for this team? Looking into the tournament, you know, both offensively with, you know, some of the hitters they have and then defensively, like you mentioned, you know, trying to make this work without cc there, I guess what do you expect to see from them coming up in this first match? And should there be any more moving forward?

O’BRIEN: I will say no disrespect to Lipscomb or Georgia Tech, the winner of that match. But in that first match for the Gophers in the second round of the tournament, I would expect to see a player like Stephanie Samedy, put up good numbers, because they’re going to try to get her rolling as the main offensive component on the team. But again, some of these higher-seeded teams in the tournament, if the Gophers were to advance, I would expect to see players like Taylor Landfair, and, Adanna Rollins need to kind of step up and get rolling offensively too, because some of these good teams in the Big Ten if they’re, if they have the personnel, and if they’re just, you know, able to, on that given night, they’ll send a lot more blockers Samedy’s way. And it’s basically just obviously, the concept of, we’re going to try to take away what you do best and make you play, you know, your second-best hand or third best hand. So I would also argue, though, that Landfair and Rollins, if you’re really considering them, you know, your second and third best hand, they’re still obviously really, really good hands.

O’HARA: Right, exactly. Might not be a royal flush, but it might be a full house.

O’BRIEN: Exactly. Right. So it’s not like the Gophers are in any trouble, necessarily. It’s just that those two players will definitely need to step up in the tournament. It’ll also be interesting to see, to just thinking a little bit more about it, the Gophers blockers themselves offensively haven’t gotten involved as much throughout the year, as far as I’m just attacking. So we’ll see if you know that changes at all in the tournament, they’ve had, you know, this, almost a week, roughly, maybe even more than a week off to prepare, and maybe add some elements to the offensive, that could be one area where more blockers get involved offensively. And then defensively, I think it’s mostly about creating their own energy, which is something they’ve just had to do in general, this season without any fans, home or away, and just kind of be willing to, you know, sacrifice themselves for a point. And I think defensively, that’s going to be really key in some of these tighter matches, as long as they advance. Because when they weren’t playing well, defensively, and they got out of system, it definitely showed against teams like Nebraska, when C.C. was in the lineup, but then also against Wisconsin, when she wasn’t too, so you can definitely tell when they’re not getting things, going defensively, that it’s hard for them to kind of come back and some of these sets, for sure.

O’HARA: Yeah. And it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be interesting to see how they balance all of that should be a lot of fun to watch. I know, I’m excited for this tournament. And, you know, one of the things you mentioned earlier is the Gophers like to place a lot of focus on what they’re doing, not necessarily what the other team’s doing. But still, you know, they’re gonna be across from either Lipscomb or Georgia Tech on Thursday. So, you know, that games about to be underway, what do you know about these teams? And do you think, you know, what do you think about either matchup in this in this next one that will be you know, happening here this Thursday?

O’BRIEN: Sure. Again, no disrespect to those two teams. Obviously, they’re two of the 48 teams in the tournament. I would just say, though, like, no matter who the opponent is, I would obviously think the Gophers will come out with a victory there they have, in the past few years, the opponent that they’ve played in the first round, they’ve taken care of business pretty, pretty easily. Georgia Tech is obviously a bigger name, Power Five school in pretty much every other sport, one of the four teams in the ACC that’s in the tournament this year at, let me pull it up here, 13- 4, and then Lipscomb, Lipscomb, excuse me is 17-2, obviously a little bit of a lower-tiered school, not in the Power Five, so obviously don’t know as much about that those two teams as the Gophers but those are just kind of some like early thoughts on the matchup for tomorrow.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah, generally in the last couple years anyways, they’ve gotten through those first-round matchups pretty easily and quickly, so I generally expect the same. But looking down on the rest of the bracket to you know, there’s a lot of good teams out there. You know, Louisville is one of the teams in the Gophers bracket, who the Gophers beat in five sets last year in the tournament. I guess, what are your thoughts on this Minnesota side of the bracket? There’s no potential Big Ten matchups until the Final Four, which is interesting where Purdue could make it and the Gophers could play Purdue there. But you know, that’s way, way down the line still, but I guess what are your thoughts on this bracket and, and you know how the Gophers fair?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, there’s three of the way it works is there’s only 16 total teams seeded in the bracket and the overall bracket and then there’s four teams in each region, then that would be seated. So the Gophers are the No. 3 seed and then they the other seeded opponents they could play if things were to kind of go chalk, and there weren’t any major upsets, No. 6 seeded Washington, No. 11 seeded Louisville and No. 14 seeded Utah, if for those that aren’t necessarily familiar with the bracket yet. So Washington and Utah are two teams that are part of the Pac-12, which is traditionally known as if the Big Ten is considered by some to be the top volleyball conference, other than the Pac-12 is pretty much the 1A to the Big Ten’s 1. Stanford won the Pac-12, or while they won the national championship rather, last year, Washington…

O’HARA: Beat the Gophers in the Final Four last year.

O’BRIEN: Exactly. So Washington is a team now that I believe they were the top team in the Pac-12 this year, I might be incorrect about that. And then Utah at, I believe it says 13. And for those are two teams that obviously could definitely, you know, bring the Gophers just some trouble because, again, they’re just top-seeded teams in this tournament as well. Louisville would be, you know, obviously an interesting rematch, it would be that revenge game for the Cardinals. You know, obviously, Gophers fans wouldn’t want that to happen if Louisville was to meet the Gophers. But you know, overall, I think it’s gonna be a little tough against some of those opponents. But again, as a No. 3 seed in this tournament, overall, I think they’re going to be, you know, just fine. If they, you know, if everything kind of holds true, and they stay healthy.

O’HARA: Sure. I, I know, one thing I do love doing on this podcast is doing predictions. So that being said, looking at the bracket here, what are what’s your Final Four predictions? And who is your championship winner?

O’BRIEN: I’m just looking at the bracket right now. So I probably will go with Wisconsin because they are undefeated, and they’re the overall No. 1 seed. They do have some traditionally, well, they have won traditionally tough school in Florida in their region. Ohio State is a Big Ten team. That is tough too, but I guess I’ll go with Wisconsin there. I do think in the region below them. I’ll go with Texas. I think I’m gonna go with what you had talked about off air too. I’m going to pick the Gophers in their region. And then yeah, we’ll pick Kentucky as well. So the Gophers won’t necessarily meet a Big Ten opponent, if they do at all and the tournament until potentially the championship.

O’HARA: And who’s your championship winner?

O’BRIEN: I did forget about that. Um, I will say that Wisconsin, the one match that I was able to see of them, which was against the Gophers, they looked extremely tough. And they were just, it looked like they were just attacking from everywhere. So I think that is going to be a little bit tough if the Gophers were to meet them. So I think I unfortunately, I will pick Wisconsin. I’m going to go chalk.

O’HARA: Gonna go chalk. Yeah, I don’t think Gophers fans are gonna like this because I think I’m going to pick Wisconsin as well. They’re, they’re tough and they don’t have a Kathryn Plummer to run into this year in the championship game. But I do think yeah, Final Four, like you said, I’d said off air that those were same four picks I had. So it’ll be an interesting road to get there. And we’ll see what happens and see how it unfolds. But do you have any other thoughts on the tournament or the Gophers looking towards this tournament coming up?

O’BRIEN: No, I don’t think so. I think we covered it all. I’m just looking forward to getting to watch some volleyball get looking forward to seeing them get to play, you know, different competition too. Definitely going to be fun. And, yeah, hope everyone else enjoys it too.

O’HARA: For sure. I mean, I know they played Fairfield in the first-round last year and I didn’t know anything about Fairfield and even hadn’t even heard of them to be perfectly honest but it is fun to see all these different schools competing and you know, making the tournament and should be a lot of fun to watch. I’m excited.

O’BRIEN: Yeah, for sure.

O’HARA: But yeah, thank you again for joining us appreciate you hopping on here and on short notice too.

O’BRIEN: Yeah, no problem at all. And thanks for having me.

O’HARA: In other news: Gophers cross-country runner Bethany Hasz was named the Big Ten Co-Track and Field Athlete of the week after dominating the 5000 meter at the Big Ten Indiana Invite on Friday. Her time of 15:43.58 broke her own program record and was 43 seconds faster than the runner-up.

Gophers track and field runner Amira Young was named the 2021 Women’s Big Ten Track Athlete of Championships. In the Big Ten championships, Young earned titles in the 60 meter and 200-meter races.

Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine picked up the Mike Richter Award, which is given to the best collegiate goaltender. LaFontane also garnered West First-Team All-American honors along with forward Sampo Ranta, who recently signed with the Colorado Avalanche. LaFontaine announced he will use his extra year of eligibility and return to Minnesota next season instead of going to the NHL.

The Gophers softball team is riding a five-game win streak into series this weekend against Nebraska, after sweeping Northwestern and a four-game series last weekend. Infielder MaKenna Partain was named Big Ten Player of the Week for the second time this season after her performance this last weekend. The Gophers will take on the Cornhuskers in a four-game series at home at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

The Gophers baseball team is looking to end a four-game losing streak after getting swept by Iowa last weekend. The Gophers will be back in action this weekend at home at Siebert Field to take on Michigan in a three-game series.

That’s all for this week. Be sure to check our website mndaily.com for more coverage and tune in again next week to get the “Weekly Rundown” all things Gopher sports. Thanks.