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Gophers volleyball embraces change in the offseason

Veteran players will take on different roles and mentor new players as they prepare for the spring season.
Image by Eleanor King
Gophers volleyball huddles together during a match against Rutgers on Oct. 20, 2023.

As volleyball practices are set to resume for the spring, Gophers players took time to reflect on an offseason full of change and develop an identity for the program’s future.

Last season concluded with the team falling to Creighton in round two of the NCAA tournament. Head coach Keegan Cook’s streak of never having a player enter the transfer portal ended when outside hitter Taylor Landfair entered the portal, followed by middle blocker Arica Davis.

Landfair joined the national runner-up Nebraska Cornhuskers while Davis decided to play for High Point. Both teams were opponents on the Gophers 2023 schedule. 

The departure of Landfair and Davis, in addition to the graduation of libero Kylie Murr and middle blocker Phoebe Awoleye, left Cook with several spots on his roster to fill. 

The only middle blocker currently rostered is sophomore Calissa Minatee, who averaged 0.75 blocks per set last season. For Minatee, understanding the game and defining her role at the collegiate level was a huge focus for her last season.

“The on-court experience helped a lot in terms of nerves and anxiety,” Minatee said. 

Murr graduated and moved on to play for the Vegas Thrill in the Pro Volleyball Federation, leaving the Gophers needing a new defensive specialist.

As of now, Zeynep Palabiyik and Skylar Gray are the team’s liberos. Palabiyik averaged 1.12 digs per set in 20 matches last season.

“She’s our little light on the team,” Minatee said. “She will be exactly that, our energy person to go to uplift us.”

Change is nothing new for redshirt senior Elise McGhie. She played two seasons at Kansas before joining the Gophers in 2022.

McGhie said playing for three different coaching staffs in four years helped her to become a more adaptable player. She traditionally plays the setter position but said she was asked to take on a defensive specialist role as the season progressed.

“I want to be the best that I can be and in whatever capacity that is for the team,” McGhie said. “If it’s like, ‘Hey we need somebody who’s gonna play right back row right now,’ then that’s a no-brainer.”

Julia Hanson is another veteran Gopher who was asked to try out a variety of positions on the court. Hanson said she was willing to fill any position her team needs from her but found it difficult to fine-tune each role during the season.

“We have limited [practice] time but I guess just believing in my skill and my ability was the biggest thing that really helped me with those roles,” Hanson said. 

McGhie knows the team will be a young squad next season and said her experience going through change will help her to mentor the younger players who have yet to go through adversity.

“I think what people need most of the time isn’t always advice or someone telling them what to do, but just a friend being there,” McGhie said. 

The Gophers have several spots to fill but will gain Olivia and Stella Swenson as early enrollees for the spring season. 

Olivia joins redshirt freshman Sydney Schnichels as an outside hitter with no college playing experience while Stella joins redshirt sophomore Chloe Ng as a setter with no college playing experience.

Olivia and Schnichels will play alongside Hanson, Mckenna Wucherer and Lydia Grote in the outside position while Stella and Ng will follow the lead of McGhie and Melani Shaffmaster in the setter position.

The Swenson sisters are no strangers to Minatee or Schnichels. They played on the same Minnesota Select team as Schnichels and faced Minatee during their club career.

“Being in their shoes last year, I have every intention of helping them out, helping them find their people and their classes,” Minatee said.

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