Folks around the University of Minnesota volleyball team call their home court at the Sports Pavilion “The Pav,” pronounced like “Have.” Older venues with character deserve familiar nicknames, and this one fits nicely.
Formerly the U’s hockey arena, the acoustically friendly Pav reverberates with noise whenever the Gophers are rolling, punctuated by public address announcer Kirk Possehl’s call-and-response after each Minnesota point. “Point U!” Possehl says, and the crowd gives it right back.
If you haven’t seen the fourth-ranked, Big Ten champion Gophers in person yet, you’re missing one of the best shows in town. With more than half the roster drawn from the state’s thriving club volleyball scene, the 26-4 Gophers are athletic, resourceful and a hoot to watch. Coach Hugh McCutcheon’s bunch went 18-2 in Big Ten play, the best mark in school history, and might be good enough to reach the NCAA Final Four in Omaha later this month. Winning the school’s first national volleyball title isn’t out of the question, either. Minnesota is the tournament’s No. 2 seed, just behind Southern Cal.
“We’re been dreaming some big dreams since the beginning of the year,” said junior middle blocker Paige Tapp, an in-state product from Stewartville. “I’m excited to see where we can go. We’re right where we want to be right now. If we can just continue getting better every single day, and consistently working hard, we can make a run for a national championship.”
Won all 13 regular-season matches at The Pav
Minnesota won all 13 regular-season matches at The Pav, selling out three, with the fifth-largest average attendance in Division 1 at 4,009. (The joint holds about 5,500). More big crowds are expected for this weekend’s NCAA Tournament sub-regional. Friday’s first-round doubleheader features Northern Iowa (19-14) and Marquette (21-11) at 4:30 p.m., with Minnesota facing Jackson State (15-21) at approximately 6:30 p.m. Friday’s winners meet at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, with that winner advancing to the Des Moines Regional Dec. 11 and 12.
Three weeks ago a rollicking sellout crowd of 5,535 watched the Gophers sweep two-time defending NCAA champion Penn State in three sets, the signature victory in the U’s first conference title season since 2002. Freshman setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson moved the ball around so adroitly that each set featured a different leader in kills – senior Daly Santana first, then junior Hannah Tapp (Paige’s twin sister), and finally junior Sarah Wilhite.
Through all the mayhem and madness, McCutcheon, the lanky New Zealander who coached the U.S. men’s Olympic team to a gold medal in 2008 and the women to silver in 2012 before coming to Dinkytown, remained the calmest guy in the place. Favoring an Oxford shirt and tie, McCutcheon often drapes a big arm behind a chair while checking handwritten notes, as if perusing a dessert menu. McCutcheon’s players respond to his unruffled vibe with poise, even in the tensest situations.
Against Penn State, the Gophers forged ahead in each set and withstood late runs instead of crumbling. That’s the biggest improvement over last season, when the 19-12 Gophers missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. Minnesota had reached the Elite Eight and the Round of 16 in McCutcheon’s first two seasons, respectively.
Last year ‘just a little bit naïve’
“The team last year was probably a little immature,” McCutcheon said. “They weren’t knuckleheads or anything – they were great kids – but they were just a little bit naïve to what it was to be in close situations, and how to finish sets off. We had a very high number of close sets we were involved in, and came up short a bunch. This year it’s been the opposite of that.
“If you’re talking about a sum total of how many points better we are, it isn’t a huge number. It’s getting those points at the right time.”
Added Santana, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year: “The only part that was missing was knowing what it takes to be a successful team in this conference. That’s something we learned with time with each other.”
In volleyball, perhaps more than any other sport, players need to work together or the whole operation collapses. One or two stars can’t carry a fragmented team. The three-part dynamic of bump, set and spike requires communication, decisiveness and trust among the six players on the court.
A tight-knit group
These Gophers are a tight-knit group that grew closer on a March trip to Japan’s National Training Center in Tokyo to compete against the Japanese World University Games team. (One of Japan’s veteran coaches, Koichiro Kanno, spent 2014 in residence with the Gophers as a volunteer assistant.)
“I just thought being in an environment where it was so different … forced a lot of connections,” McCutcheon said. “There wasn’t a lot of social media. There weren’t a lot of other things going on. People had to kind of sit down and go analog and talk to each other. That worked out pretty well, I think.”
The players watch movies together. They bowl. And they love playing cards. Santana and Wilhite giggled as they tried describing the group’s favorite game, a fast-paced derivation of solitaire called Nertz, also known as Nerts. “When we bring in new people, we have them watch because we really can’t explain it,” Wilhite said.
It helps that nine of McCutcheon’s 16 players are Minnesotans, six from the well-regarded Northern Lights club program. Early fears that McCutcheon might load the roster with West Coast recruits while ignoring the locals proved unfounded. Minnesota clubs produce dozens of Division I players, and the lure of recruiting within driving distance of home was a big selling point for McCutcheon, a father of two. (McCutcheon’s wife, former U.S. Olympian Wiz Bachman of Lakeville, played for Northern Lights.) Plus, Minnesota remains a difficult sell to certain Californians who view it as a land of perpetual winter, a sort of Ice Station Zebra with better restaurants.
Seliger-Swenson of Minnetonka and Hannah Tapp joined Santana, a dynamic hitter from Puerto Rico and the U’s first Big Ten P.O.Y. since Cassie Busse in 2003, on the all-conference first team announced this week. Paige Tapp received honorable mention. Seliger-Swenson was also named the conference’s top freshman, and McCutcheon the Coach of the Year.
Santana, who pronounces her first name “Dolly,” ranks among the U’s career top 10 in kills, aces and digs. Her 39 kills against Louisville on Sept. 4 remains the national season high in Division 1.
“Those awards wouldn’t be possible without the help of every single person on this team,” Santana said. “That’s a great thing.”
McCutcheon never looks beyond the next opponent, a useful tool that keeps his players focused on the task at hand. At the post-match press conference following the Penn State victory, McCutcheon appeared alarmed when the tone of some questions appeared to dismiss the Nittany Lions as has-been champions. McCutcheon knows better. “We haven’t won (expletive),” he said a few days later. The Big Ten put nine teams in the NCAA Tournament, more than any other conference, and seventh-seeded Penn State could be waiting in the Des Moines regional final if the Gophers get that far.
Eyes on Jackson State
For now McCutcheon is keeping his eyes on Friday and Jackson State, which won only seven sets in an 0-18 start before a remarkable 15-3 turnabout that brought the Southwestern Athletic Conference title. But McCutcheon gave himself a little latitude to address whether he expected this much from this team.
“When you get high functioning teams, and a group that is as connected as this group is, I think all things become possible,” McCutcheon said. “You can have talent, but without the culture that’s supports it, it’s difficult. Once you get a group that wants to battle with each other and for each other, you don’t really know what you’re going to get out of it, but you know it’s possible something great can come of it. That seems to be the case, certainly in the conference play portion of the season anyway.”
The rest remains to be played out, beginning Friday at The Pav.