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Analysis: A season of ups and downs for Gophers volleyball

The Gophers volleyball team won four straight after getting knocked out of the AVCA rankings but couldn’t get back up after getting swept twice on the road.
Image by Eleanor King
The Gopher volleyball game on Oct. 20, 2023.

The Gophers volleyball team called a team meeting after losing on the road to Rutgers. The loss pushed the team out of the AVCA national rankings.

Since that meeting, the Gophers have won four straight but recently dropped road matches to two ranked teams, further demonstrating how unpredictable this season has become. The team will enter the home stretch of their season and cap off the regular season Nov. 25 against the No. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

The Gophers discussed ways to alter their practices to be more aggressive as opposed to focusing on technicalities. They collectively decided upon the switch in their meeting and brought it up to head coach Keegan Cook.

“We had to go in and reset and get back to playing normal competitive volleyball,” setter Melani Shaffmaster said. 

Defensively, the Gophers are among the top three teams in the Big Ten with 14.27 digs per set. Much of their defensive efforts can be tied to libero Kylie Murr, who leads the team with 316 digs this season.

The offensive side of the ball, however, is a much different story. The Gophers rank seventh in hitting percentage in the Big Ten, ninth in kills, eighth in blocks and seventh in service aces. 

The last time the Gophers took to their home court, they out-blocked Michigan State 14-8. Cook said the team had been working on blocking in practice and, even after defeating Michigan State, admitted the team still needed work.

Taylor Landfair, Gophers outside hitter, has been struggling this season in her serve receive and become a target for opposing servers. Landfair’s serve reception errors per set sit at 69%, whereas last season she was at 30%. 

Cook realized Landfair had been a target for opposing servers and emphasized the urge for his team to score from the back row and the right side in an effort to relieve pressure from the outsides. 

“Second match in a row where I haven’t liked what we’ve done on the right side of the offense,” Cook said after defeating Michigan State. “We got to keep doing better, little uncharacteristic for us.”

While on the road this weekend, the Gophers were swept by Purdue. Three days later, they were swept by Wisconsin in the first-ever match broadcasted nationally on FOX.

Despite the Gophers’ loss, the growth of volleyball cannot be denied. Their matchup on FOX had 1.659 million viewers, making it the most-watched college volleyball game of all time.

Shaffmaster said the team talked about the legacy of Gophers volleyball in their meeting and how they felt that they have not been able to uphold it with the way they have been playing.

“Our first team conversation after Maryland and Rutgers was, ‘We’re kind of letting a legacy go a little here,’” Shaffmaster said. “It’s just a lack of effort and no care.”

Gophers outside Mckenna Wucherer said she thinks attitudes in the gym have significantly shifted since losing to Maryland and Rutgers, which helped to lead them to their four-game winning streak.

For Wucherer personally, she has noticed a significant change in her level of confidence on the court. 

“I know when my team is in need of a big play, I can do anything for them in any moment,” Wucherer said.

Wucherer called out her serve-receive game as one of her greatest assets to the program this year. She is currently third on the team in serve receiving at 92%. 

“I can be a reliable aspect in that category,” Wucherer said.

Both Wucherer and Shaffmaster said the adversity has built the character of the team and allowed them to change their perspectives on how they approach the game while facing the homestretch of the season and the start of the NCAA tournament. 

The Gophers return to Maturi Pavilion Nov. 3 where they will play the unranked Ohio State Buckeyes. 

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