Only a smattering of people wearing Gophers gear returned Saturday to the scene where their hopes were extinguished. Upset 3-1 by Oregon in Friday’s NCAA regional semifinals, they would not be returning for one more match on their home floor, with the chance to win a place in the Final Four at Target Center.
“We’re all grieving a little,” Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said Saturday. “It’s a bummer that we’re not playing.”
The sudden end, though, didn’t diminish McCutcheon’s pride in a season that will be remembered as one of the Gophers’ best ever. The team finished 19-1 in the Big Ten, recording the most league victories in program history, and won its first 18 conference matches.
The season included a 19-match winning streak, a 16-1 record at the Pavilion, five victories against top-five opponents, a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed and 21 sweeps in 31 matches. The Gophers have the potential to remain among the nation’s top teams next season, with only one key player — setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson — completing her eligibility.
On Friday, McCutcheon said, the Gophers were merely good, while Oregon was great. Over the course of the season, though, he saw enough greatness in his own team to push past the heartache.
“I still think it’s one of our best [seasons], in spite of the finish,” McCutcheon said. “We played some really good volleyball, and we were consistently a very good team.
“It didn’t finish how we wanted. But I can’t imagine a 27-4 record, that we would have sneezed at that if someone had said that would be our season.”
Friday’s loss ended a string of 14 consecutive NCAA tournament victories for the Gophers on their home floor. Their regional was the only one to include four seeded teams, giving them a difficult path to the Final Four.
Against Oregon, they met a team that threw a wrench into their usual smooth-running system. The Ducks’ speed, passing and movement kept the Gophers scrambling, and the Ducks’ defense expertly read their hitters. The Gophers also could not push past a grueling second set they lost 41-39.
Oregon coach Matt Ulmer called Seliger-Swenson “one of a kind” after Friday’s match, which is how fans will remember the Minnetonka native.
A four-year starter, she recently was named the All-North Region and Big Ten player of the year to cap a career in which she amassed 5,674 assists. Seliger-Swenson has been a first- or second-team All-America in her three previous seasons and is a lock to make it four in a row.
As the player who makes the offense run smoothly — and ensures the Gophers maximize all their big hitters — she will leave a gaping void. Sophomore setter Sara Nielsen played only 37 of the Gophers’ 107 sets this season. Freshman Bayley McMenimen did not play at all, and there are no setters among the three recruits set to join the team next season.
Given Seliger-Swenson’s talent, McCutcheon said it will “certainly be a challenge” to replace her, though the Gophers return a quintet of All-Big Ten and All-Region players in Stephanie Samedy, Alexis Hart, Adanna Rollins, Regan Pittman and Taylor Morgan.
The only good thing that comes from losing, McCutcheon said, is the opportunity it affords to learn. He called his players “a solution-based” group that will be working to improve their technique and their ability to handle the most critical moments of the biggest matches.
And as much as it hurts for the season to end prematurely, he urged them to take pride in the pursuit.
“You need to have your heart in these things, and it’s OK if it gets hurt a little,” McCutcheon said. “Otherwise, you’re not doing it justice.
“We’ve always talked about the nobility of best effort. We can say and do everything we can to win, but there are parts of the competitive equation that we can’t control. Hopefully, they can see that.”