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Minnesota Gophers volleyball hopes to respond like the 2003 Final Four team after rough start

Ranked No. 7 nationally in preseason, the 2023 team finds itself 10-9 and reeling in early October after back-to-back losses at Maryland and Rutgers, traditionally two of the worst teams in the Big Ten.

Taylor Landfair
Taylor Landfair, right, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year.
Photo by Brad Rempel

Last Sunday, the University of Minnesota volleyball program honored 28 of its alumni during the second set break of its match with Michigan State.

The brief on-court ceremony, marking 50 years of Gopher volleyball, singled out eight members of the 2003 team on the 20th anniversary of the program’s first Final Four appearance. That acknowledgement happened at an opportune time for the current Gophs, facing a predicament similar to the one former coach Mike Hebert’s squad overcame all those years ago.

“An interesting coincidence,” is how first-year coach Keegan Cook described it, with marked understatement.

Back then the Gophs were good, winning the program’s first Big Ten Conference title in 2002 and regularly qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. But they weren’t considered a national championship contender. Not yet.

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The 2003 season changed that, though it hardly appeared that way early. The Gophs started 0-4 and 7-7 before peeling off 10 consecutive victories and eventually making another NCAA Tournament. Once in, the 13th-seeded Minnesota won four straight matches to reach the Final Four, where defending NCAA champ Southern California knocked them out in the semifinals.

The current Gophs? Ranked No. 7 nationally in preseason, Minnesota found itself 6-8 and reeling in early October after back-to-back losses at Maryland and Rutgers, traditionally two of the worst teams in the Big Ten. For the first time since 2015, Minnesota fell out of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) poll. There were mitigating circumstances – more on that later – but the Gophs, one year after coach Hugh McCutcheon’s unexpected resignation, were suddenly in big trouble.

Once Cook, hired after eight consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances at the University of Washington, learned about the 2003 team, he asked athletics communications staffer E.J. Stevens IV to find someone from that squad to speak to his players. Turned out they already had one lined up in their regular speaker’s program – Meredith Nelson Uram, a freshman that season, an All-American as a senior and now an executive at General Mills.

Nelson Uram gave her talk Oct. 16, the day after the Gophs beat Northwestern to start a three-match home stand. She didn’t immediately respond to an interview request from MinnPost, but Cook summarized her uplifting message.

“They made a decision, after a Purdue match (a four-set loss to the Boilermakers on Sept. 27, 2003), to not have any regrets and play as hard as they possibly could,” he said. “We’re in a similar situation now.”

After much discussion and soul-searching among the players and coaches, last weekend the Gophs beat Rutgers in straight sets and Michigan State in four, giving them a season-best four-match winning streak. That ended Thursday night with a straight set loss at 16th-ranked Purdue,

making a path back to the NCAA Tournament even more tenuous.

A challenging final month of Big Ten play awaits the Gophs (10-9 overall, 6-5 in conference), one that includes No. 2 Wisconsin in Madison on Sunday (nationally televised by Fox Sports), No. 1 Nebraska at Maturi Pavilion on Nov. 25, and Purdue again on Nov. 10.

“That was one of our talks: People have left a legacy here, and we’re kind of screwing around right now,” said senior setter Melani Shaffmaster. “We think it’s going to get better, but it’s not magically going to get better. Maybe that was our first conversation after the Maryland and Rutgers losses; We’re kind of letting the legacy go a little here. This is not what we want to do. That got it kick-started.”

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The conversations began by group text shortly after the team returned from the double-loss road trip. About that: Shaffmaster, an All-Big-Ten first teamer last year and the player who makes the Gophs go, was ill the week before the Maryland match and didn’t practice. The Gophs chartered to Maryland without her and lost 18-25, 25-22, 26-24, 21-25 and 10-15– Maryland’s first victory over the Gophs in 19 tries.

After that, the Gophs bussed from College Park, Md. to Piscataway, N.J., arriving at 3 a.m. for the Rutgers match that night. Shaffmaster flew in from Minneapolis while Cook let the players sleep in, but the sluggish Gophs played even worse, losing to the Scarlet Knights for the first time since 1983 – 20-25, 22-25, 25-16, 14-25. Rutgers had never beaten a ranked team.

Melani Shaffmaster
Photo by Brad Rempel
“People have left a legacy here, and we’re kind of screwing around right now,” said senior setter Melani Shaffmaster.
“After the Rutgers game, I think everyone had their off day and didn’t talk about volleyball for a day,” Shaffmaster said. “A lot of messages were being sent. I think everybody had their own thoughts, and our thoughts were a lot more similar than everyone realized.”

Shaffmaster said she and libero (back row player) Kylie Murr, a graduate transfer from Ohio State and the 2022 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, spoke with Cook and the coaching staff about practice routines and effort. They felt the team needed more time on the court – “chasing balls down, getting a little breathy,” as Shaffmaster put it – and less time watching video. The coaches agreed to switch things up.

“We had to reset and get back to playing more normal, athletic volleyball,” Shaffmaster said. “We were focusing a little bit too much on … a bunch of little things that didn’t really matter, or didn’t have a big enough affect for us.”

Victories over Michigan and Northwestern, both unranked, got the Gophs back to .500 overall and in Big Ten play heading into last weekend. Rutgers was up first. Before the usual raucous crowd at the Pavilion (5,044 that night), the Gophs struggled to take the first set, 25-22.

Things began to turn Minnesota’s way in the second set after versatile sophomore Julia Hanson mashed a kill down the line, then served the next five points, with two aces. The Gophs won that set, 25-17, then rolled in set three to finish it off, with Hanson serving another long run in a 25-9 rout.

“Tonight, we really wanted this,” Hanson said after the match. “We wanted revenge for ourselves because we know we’re better than we played the last time.”

Last Sunday the Gophs started well, winning the first set 25-15. Up 21-18 in set two, the Gophs couldn’t close, losing 25-23. Five kills by sophomore outside hitter Mckenna Wucherer carried to Gophs to a 25-16 victory in set three.

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Then in set four, Michigan State’s servers began targeting All-American outside hitter Taylor Landfair, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. Serve receive is the one deficiency in Landfair’s otherwise spectacular all-around game – her 52 receiving errors lead the Gophs by far – and Big Ten teams regularly go after her. Landfair committed three errors as the Gophs fell behind, 19-14.

Then redshirt sophomore Lauren Crowl, who didn’t play the first three sets, got the Gophs going with three kills and block as the Gophs scored 11 of the next 12 points to finish the match. Shaffmaster knows to get the ball to Landfair when she’s struggling, and Landfair responded with three kills and a block in that late run. Wucherer (17) and Landfair (13) combined for 30 of Minnesota’s 48 kills, while Shaffmaster contributed 35 assists, 14 digs (her 11th double-double) and three service aces.

Shaffmaster joined Sharon Oesterling (1986-89), Lindsey Taatjes (2001-04) and Samantha Seliger-Swenson (2015-18) as the only Gophers to reach 3,500 assists and 1,000 digs in their career.

Sunday’s Wisconsin match, with a Vikings-Packers lead-in on Fox, might be the most watched television volleyball match of the season. There’s intrigue, too. Former Gopher Carter Booth, the 6’7” middle blocker who transferred after McCutcheon stepped down, starts for the Badgers. The Gophs are 2-7 against ranked teams and need a signature win, fast.

For now, Shaffmaster will lean on what happened in 2003.

“This is a new experience for us, trying to understand what’s kind of happening,” Shaffmaster said. “All of us came from really good (AAU) clubs and high school (teams). Obviously the last few years, we’ve been pretty good. It’s a new thing for us. It’s reassuring to hear it’s happened to people before in the past, and they ended up going to the Final Four.”

Editor’s note: The story was updated with the most current rankings of Gopher opponents and the fourth set of the Maryland loss was updated to the accurate score of 21-25.