This was the mid-1980s and North Country was among the pioneers for offseason junior volleyball in Minnesota. Heather Vollmers from Hutchinson and Vicki Seliger from Tartan High first met as 16-year-olds playing on that team.

“Sometimes you just hit it off with people,” Heather said. “We became friends through volleyball. When we were reunited over a decade ago, that friendship came right back. We’re like sisters now.”

Volleyball has remained an important part of the bond. Vicki married Erik Swenson and their family grew to seven children after a family tragedy added four nieces and a nephew. The seven included Samantha Seliger-Swenson, an all-time great Gophers setter from 2015 to 2018.

Heather married Jim Gustafson this past August after a long relationship and their combined seven children include CC McGraw, in her second year as the Gophers’ standout libero.

Vicki has been the volleyball coach at Hopkins High School since 1995. She also is an assistant with Northern Lights, the offshoot of North Country that became a nationally prominent junior program.

CC’s father is Tim McGraw and, when CC was a tyke, she would bring a volleyball into the McGraws’ yard and plead with her sisters, Libby and Alex, to hit balls at her.

“I was about 6, and if they didn’t think I was trying hard enough to dig out their shots, they would say, ‘We’re going in the house,’ ” CC said. “I would cry and beg them to stay.”

Heather said this drama started when CC was even younger. “Maybe 4; she would promise Libby and Alex that she would try harder,” Heather said. “Turned out to be good training.”

Once CC started playing organized volleyball, there was no question she would have to make her way as a defensive specialist, a digger, a point saver. “I wasn’t going to be a blocker, that’s for sure,” she said. “I was short.”

She still was a bit undersized six years ago, when Vicki Seliger was with Samantha at the Gophers’ elite camp, and looked around and said: “CC belongs here. She can compete with this group.”

McGraw was 13 and competed well enough to be offered by the Gophers as a freshman at Prior Lake High School. She committed early, and had the 2018 college season to play with Seliger-Swenson, a role model not by position but by how to approach the game and college life.

“Samantha was such a tremendous player, and so gracious to CC as she was growing up in the game,” Heather said.

McGraw was asked this week about the absence of Samantha from the lineup and said: “It’s an adjustment, I’m sure, for the hitters that played with Sam for two or three seasons. But our setters are playing very well. We are 9-1 in the best conference in America.”

The Gophers made that 10-1 on Wednesday, with a 25-19, 19-25, 22-25, 25-10, 17-15 over Ohio State at the Pavilion. The Buckeyes came in at 4-6 in the Big Ten, but they pushed the Gophers to the decisive fifth set.

Bayley McMenimen, a sophomore from Niceville, Fla., has become the starting setter. She’s listed generously at 5-9, making it more difficult for her to play at the net than it was for the 5-11 Seliger-Swenson.

There was a moment in the fifth set when McMenimen made a terrific dig to set up a kill, and McGraw, who had a team-high 22 digs, responded with a joyous dance in the backcourt. Earlier in the week, she said: “Without Sam, I feel like I have to be more outgoing, show more leadership.”

This team can’t be mistaken for the outfit that won the Big Ten title last season at 19-1. These Gophers still have the big hitters up front, but they have to fight for everything.

Wednesday’s match seemed similar to the upset loss to Oregon that derailed the Gophers in the Sweet 16 last season in the Pavilion — at least until Adanna Rollins’ match-winning kill.

The Oregon loss ended the goal of the Gophers, the No. 2 seed nationally, to play in the 2018 volleyball Final Four at Target Center. “We were bitter for a long time,” McGraw said this week. Did the Gophers enjoy watching the Final Four last December?

“I don’t know of anyone on the team that watched it,” she said. “It hurt too much.”

She shrugged. “New season,” McGraw said. “This is fun.”

 

Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing sports@startribune.com and including his name in the subject line.