MINNEAPOLIS -- This time last year, the stars looked to be aligning for the University of Minnesota volleyball team’s first national championship.
The Gophers had just produced a 19-1 Big Ten season for their first conference championship since 2015 and just the third in program history. The team earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament on the backs of a 19-match win streak that ran from early September to the last week of November.
Even more exciting was that the Gophers would never have to leave the confines of the Twin Cities to fulfill their goal of a national championship. Their No. 2 seed meant they could play the first four rounds of the tournament at Maturi Pavilion on campus, then head to U.S. Bank Stadium for the Final Four.
However, their journey wasn’t meant to be, as the Gophers’ picture-perfect season was halted in the third round by a four-set loss to the Oregon Ducks.
The disappointing loss meant the Gophers had to sit on the sidelines and watch as college volleyball’s biggest stage descended on Twin Cities.
While the loss stung, the Gophers have been adamant this season about looking forward, not back, and focusing on what this team can accomplish.
Heading into Friday night’s NCAA tournament opener against Fairfield (24-5) at the Maturi Pavilion, Minnesota (23-5) almost surely has less pressure to perform well given the circumstances of last year’s tournament. While coach Hugh McCutcheon admitted the pressure and the noise of last year was hard to get away from, he views pressure as an external distraction, not one that gets inside the heads of Gophers players.
“It’s just one of those things where it was probably more present as much through the community and media as anything else,” McCutcheon said. “But for us, obviously, we try to play it match to match and point to point, and it was what it was. But this year is different, I think, for a variety of different reasons, but mainly because of the team and stuff they have gone through already to get where we are.”
This year’s NCAA tournament team will feature many of the prominent players who were part of last season’s team; only two key contributors, Samantha Seliger-Swenson and Lauren Barnes, are gone. McCutcheon hopes the experience of last season will help returning sophomores like CC McGraw, Adanna Rollins and even some of the older players who have been on several tournament teams.
“I think there were probably some valuable lessons to learn from last year’s campaign and even from ’17 and ’16 for our seniors. I think there’s probably stuff that they’ll hope to apply this time around.”
The mind-set shifting from the regular season to the postseason doesn’t change much, according to junior Stephanie Samedy, as the Big Ten slate has provided the Gophers with a pseudo-tournament schedule. Including the Gophers, seven Big Ten made the NCAA field of 64, and Minnesota went 7-3 in the regular season against those teams.
“Let’s just keep doing our jobs. It’s gotten us this far, and we’ve had a successful Big Ten season, so I think it’s just kind of about making changes in practice and doing what we need to do,” Samedy said.
After losing four of its first six matches this season, Fairfield is on a roll, going 22-1 since Sept. 13 and winning Metro Atlantic regular-season and tournament titles. Iowa State (17-11) and Creighton (24-5) meet in Friday’s other first-round match at the Maturi Pavilion, starting at 4:30 p.m. The winner of Friday’s two matches face off at 8 p.m. Saturday.