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Gophers volleyball using the spring season to navigate the fall

The Gophers are using the momentum they had to end last season to propel themselves ahead of the fall season.
Image by Gabrielle Erenstein
The Gophers defeated Marquette in their only home spring matchup.

The Gophers took to the court Saturday donning their white volleyball threads for the first time in front of a packed Maturi Pavilion crowd this year as “It’s Tricky” by RUN-DMC blared over the sound system.  

The spring exhibition match against Marquette was the first and only time Gophers fans could watch the team at the Pavilion before the fall. The plan for the match was to play four sets regardless of who won the first three. If it were a true matchup, the Gophers would have needed the fourth set to claim victory.

The Gophers’ season last year was filled with adversity in almost every match, but the team finally established themselves toward the end when they received a bid to play in the NCAA Tournament.

The momentum from the end of last season carried over to Saturday’s match as the Gophers looked relaxed with every point. Head coach Keegan Cook said part of the team’s connectivity is a credit to what they went through together last season.

“Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets at times,” Cook said.

Returning players in Saturday’s spring matchup

Middle blocker Phoebe Awoleye tallied one block and eight block assists in Saturday’s match, proving to be an asset to the Gophers in 2024.

Awoleye used her fifth year of eligibility after she originally planned to graduate. Her return to the Gophers provides more veteran experience at the front row after middle blocker Arica Davis and outside hitter Taylor Landfair both transferred from the program.

Former Gophers libero Kylie Murr was another player who graduated from the program last season. She now plays professionally in the inaugural season of the Pro Volleyball Federation

Sophomore Zeynep Palabiyik was the team’s starting libero on Saturday. She tallied 12 digs, an improvement from last season when she averaged 1.12 digs per set across 69 sets played.

“She looked the part,” Cook said.

Not only did Palabiyik dive to the floor to receive the ball, but she was the source of momentum in set three, screaming louder than the referee’s whistle after almost every successful Gophers point.

Building team chemistry

Fifth-year Melani Shaffmaster said for a guy who moved from Washington to Minnesota and is raising a family, Cook is putting in recognizable effort to build trust with his team through the offseason.

As Cook manages his life at home and coaches a Division I volleyball program, he relies on players like Shaffmaster to act as a connection between him and the team. Cook spent his Friday out recruiting alongside associate head coach Kristen Kelsay and had to miss practice, so he turned to Shaffmaster — among others — to fill him in.

“[Cook] was like, ‘Well I just want you to know, this is your team and you’ve been here, you know how it goes,’” Shaffmaster said.

Cook said the team will travel to Istanbul, Turkey; Slovenia and Italy this summer for 14 days which will help in building team chemistry. 

The team’s connections created a space for Minnesota’s No. 1 prep recruit Stella Swenson to feel at home. She and her sister Olivia Swenson joined as early enrollees and have been training and playing with the team throughout the spring season.

Stella stepped onto the Pavilion court for the first time at the start of the fourth set as her teammates high-fived her and shared words of encouragement. She had waited for the moment since watching her older sister, Samantha Seliger-Swenson, play on the same court from 2015 to 2018.

Stella plays alongside setters Shaffmaster and Elise McGhie as well as redshirt sophomore Chloe Ng. Stella said she fits in “like a puzzle piece.” 

Shaffmaster said she and Stella are very different people on the court. Shaffmaster described herself as a quiet conservative player on the court but said Stella does not stop talking. 

“She said a couple of words and I didn’t know what they meant,” Shaffmaster said. 

Shaffmaster added part of her trouble understanding Stella may be tied to her not having a TikTok account. She approached Stella after practice to get clarification on what she was saying.

“I was like, ‘Stella, I know you said these words and I don’t know what they mean,’” Shaffmaster said. “‘I’m gonna need you to get me up to speed.’”

Just last year, Stella and Olivia were in the stands watching the Gophers as fans. Now, the twins are repping their home state doing what they can to get each other to excel. 

“I’m going to do everything I can to make her look bomb dot com and she’s gonna do everything and make me look bomb,” Stella said.

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