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Gophers volleyball late-season adjustments pay off

The Gophers volleyball team has seen a resurgence in success.
Image by Eleanor King
Gophers volleyball huddles together during a match against Rutgers on Oct. 20, 2023

A season full of learning and growth for the Gophers is gaining momentum as it nears a close.

The Gophers women’s volleyball team won six of their last eight matchups and currently sit at the No. 43 ranking as their season winds down and a bid to the NCAA tournament is feasible. Much of the team’s energy can be attributed to their road win against Indiana where Gophers opposite/outside Julia Hanson helped her team to a five-set victory with a career-high 19 kills.

After beating Indiana, the Gophers went on to sweep both Iowa and Ohio State. Head coach Keegan Cook said losing big sets throughout the season helped the team gain the ability to make adjustments quickly.

“It’s a silver lining of some unfortunate sets that we’ve played,” Cook said.

Melani Shaffmaster and Kylie Murr are both Indiana natives on the Gophers team. Hanson said she wanted to win for them, which is what fueled her to put up the high kill number.

“We needed that win,” Hanson said. “Everyone had my back and so I was just comfortable out there to do my thing.”

Hanson, the sophomore, saw a 96% increase in her kill total from last season, going from 33 to 65. She said time allowed her to become more comfortable on the court.

Earlier in the season, Iowa played five sets against the Gophers. That same weekend, the Gophers played three sets against Nebraska. The team tallied 50 kills in Friday night’s victory, compared to Iowa’s 23.

Since losing to Rutgers on the road, the Gophers won nine of their last 12 matchups. They play their final two matches on their home court, one of them against Nebraska, the No. 1 team in the nation.

“We know how to play at home,” Hanson said. “These are the games that we need to win [to continue our] season in December.”

As the season nears its end, new players like Lyida Grote are settling into their roles and becoming more confident on the court. Grote said when she first joined the team, it was tough to address hard topics with her teammates.

“I definitely feel like I fit in a little better,” Grote said. “We know each other really, really well in such a way we can help each other.”

Throughout the season, Cook talked about never being “conditionally committed.” The Gophers took this philosophy to heart in their second set against Indiana where the final points were a back-and-forth battle.

After reaching set point four times, Hanson finally closed it off with a kill, taking the second set. Grote said that set was a testament to the team’s work ethic throughout the season.

“It just shows how determined we are to really be working through the end of this season,” Grote said.

Prior to their game against Iowa on Friday, the Gophers played five of their last six matches on the road. Cook said the mental strain on athletes at this time of year is significant.

“You see it in November with these teams playing each other, you know in their faces, sometimes in hitting deficiencies,” Cook said. “[We’re trying to] taper things off and be really efficient to make sure we’ve got what we need on gameday.”

Whether it’s the two days off in a week or limited practice time, the Gophers hitting is showing no signs of slowing down. In their match against Iowa, they hit .318 compared to Iowa hitting .101, and against Ohio State, the Gophers hit .310 whereas the Buckeyes hit .039.

Overall, the Gophers are hitting .227, placing them at No. 6 in the Big Ten.

Minnesota has yet to miss an NCAA tournament since 2014 and their attempt at getting a bid is far more within reach than it was in October.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of sets played against Nebraska. They played three sets against the team.

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