It didn't take new Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon long to figure out that middle blocker Tori Dixon is a person who can realistically "dream big dreams."
As the former Olympic coach for the U.S. men's and women's teams, it's fair to say he's a pretty good judge of talent.
But don't rely on words when eyes process the same message. Dixon has impressed early and has been key in the No. 10 Gophers' 11-2 start (2-0 in the Big Ten) heading into this weekend's matches against Ohio State and Penn State at home.
"She can hit with a lot of range -- she hits a heavy ball," McCutcheon said. "Having seen what it takes to play internationally and to represent her country, I think all those things are possible for her."
And despite her size and natural talent, Dixon isn't satisfied to simply go through the motions. Over the summer, the 6-3 junior competed with the U.S. Women's National A2 team in Columbus, Ohio, where she worked on her full game -- along with the blocking and offensive skill sets that have helped her succeed so much this season.
"It's a good time to compete against those top-level athletes and be around those types of coaches," Dixon said.
Dixon's offense has been nearly unstoppable. Through 13 matches, she is hitting at a .508 clip, good for second in the nation, and has added 12 kills and 30 digs. Boosted by Dixon, the Gophers lead the Big Ten in hitting (.341). But the surge in play is caused, she says, by the increased overall talent on a team that has more focus than ever this year.
During the offseason, when the Burnsville native was in Minneapolis, she and her teammates played together every day. They "got after it a little bit harder" in the gym, lifting weights, and because of it have gotten more solid across the board, she said. As they did, things became easier for Dixon, too.
"Everyone stepping up their level of play has really helped me grow in my position, have some freedom and do what I need to do to be successful," she said. "As the middle you can't hit much of anything if the pass isn't there. ... It's opened up a lot of opportunities for me, which has been really nice."
It's important for Dixon to continue to get those opportunities over the weekend, as the team goes against two Top 25 opponents. The Buckeyes have four attackers with more than 100 kills already this season. Penn State has five boasting that statistic and one of the best setters and servers in the conference in Micha Hancock.
"Tori is a huge part of our game," said teammate Katherine Harms, who was named Big Ten player of the week after last weekend's wins over Illinois and Northwestern. "She's one of our best offensive weapons ... and she provides a huge amount of energy for our team because she's always going to be consistent, she's always going to play her hardest."