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Gophers volleyball closes regular season with bid to NCAA Tournament

Minnesota clinched an at-large bid for the NCAA volleyball tournament and will play Utah State in the first round on Friday.
Image by Amaya Battle
Gopher player Elise McGhie (left) Zeynep Palabiyik (right) at their game on Oct. 15, 2023.

The Gophers received an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament Sunday and will compete in the first round against Utah State on Friday.

Minnesota hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in 12 of the last 13 seasons. This year, they will travel to Omaha, Nebraska where the No. 1 regional seeded Creighton will host the first two rounds.

Should the Gophers win against Utah State, they would play the winner of the Creighton vs. Colgate match. The Gophers competed against Creighton Sept. 16 as part of their non-conference schedule and fell in five sets.

Prior to the selection show on Sunday, uncertainty loomed over the team as they did not know what the rest of their season entailed. When the tournament selection show started, tensions rose as players eagerly awaited to see the Maroon and Gold appear on the screen.

When Minnesota was announced, players erupted in cheers and embraced one another, as it was a celebration for a season full of trial and error ultimately paying off.

The Gophers met 14 of the teams in the tournament already, including Nebraska, Purdue, High Point and Stanford. Minnesota head coach Keegan Cook said they have made significant strides in their performance since the Gophers played a lot of the teams.

“The schedule was intentional,” Cook said. “We’ve done all of the work to set ourselves up for hopefully a long run.”

Trial and error was a common theme throughout the season. Gophers libero Kylie Murr said she was glad the team experienced the adversity early in the season since it would better prepare them for the NCAA Tournament.

“Some people don’t learn who they are until December,” Murr said. “I’m really glad we got to learn that a little bit sooner.”

After dropping matches on the road against Maryland and Rutgers, Murr said the team shifted their focus, worried less about volleyball and more about being selfless teammates. The Gophers went from storming to performing and won the next four matches.

Senior setter Melani Shaffmaster said entering the tournament this year feels more “hard-earned” than in years past. She said in previous years, the team usually performed well in conference play but typically got into trouble in the tournament since they rarely faced adversity to the extent they did this season.

“We’ve kind of had to go about [this season] with different mindsets of like grit,” Shaffmaster said. “Honestly, it’s probably prepared us better than in years past.”

Shaffmaster added after the team’s last four matches, the intensity picked up with different focuses in practice ultimately translating to a flow on the court.

The Gophers played under a tournament mindset for about a month, given their NCAA Tournament eligibility was up in the air, according to Cook. He said, for the team, preparation for the tournament felt like another week in the regular season.

“That was something we said would be possibly a silver lining of the situation we put ourselves in,” Cook said.

The Gophers swept Illinois and dropped a 3-1 match to Nebraska at home in their final regular season weekend. Cook said it was critical for him to get his team to play their best volleyball by December.

“There is no question that we’re doing that right now,” Cook said.

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