There are few things Gophers volleyball All-America players Tori Dixon and Ashley Wittman have done without the other.
They’ve traveled to Italy and Puerto Rico together. They’ve made soup for each other when one of them was sick. They have the same major, sports management, and take most of the same classes. On Friday, they’ll play in their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 as teammates.
The Gophers face Stanford in the NCAA Regional at Lexington, Ky., with the winner advancing to Saturday’s region final.
A long history has produced countless memories for Dixon, a middle blocker, and Wittman, an outside hitter. They’ve played alongside one another for the past 10 years and have grown into two of the program’s most prolific players. They’ve also become best friends.
“We’ve experienced everything together, from volleyball, school, friends,” Dixon said. “It’s just been a good experience having your best friend with you all the time.”
Their commitment to volleyball and the Northern Lights Junior Volleyball club at age 12 sparked the friendship. As they began to travel together, the bond grew and eventually extended into high school, despite the rivalry Burnsville and Shakopee had developed.
Shakopee always prevailed, Wittman still reminds Dixon. Most of Shakopee’s points would come when Dixon rotated to the back row.
The friendly competition ended when the high school stars joined forces with the Gophers. Since then, they’ve only made each other better. As college teammates they developed better communication and accountability, each said, through offseason workouts together.
“Going through our college career together and going through ups and downs and learning more about one another on and off the court,” Wittman said, “we’ve helped each other want to get better. And knowing that we have something to achieve and that we can do it together, it’s just nice knowing that person is there and you can have them on the volleyball court or in the weight room with you.”
Second-year coach Hugh McCutcheon said he’s noticed significant improvement in Dixon and Wittman during his two seasons with the team. The pair have become better leaders and teammates. More mature, better game managers.
This growth was obvious in the fifth set of last Saturday’s second-round NCAA game against Colorado. The Buffaloes rallied from two sets down and pushed the Gophers to the edge of elimination. Wittman gathered the team together and exclaimed their season wouldn’t end this way.
The motivation worked. Dixon recorded the final three points to secure the Gophers’ spot in another Sweet 16 with a 15-9 win in the fifth set.
Dixon said their long friendship is an advantage in pressure situations like last Saturday: “We’ve been through everything together.”
“As people and teammates, there is no doubt they’ve got a long history and really strong connection and I think they help each other a lot,” McCutcheon said. “You can see they’ve got a lot of good years together.”
The good has peaked over the past two seasons. Dixon earned her third consecutive All-Big Ten selection, Wittman her second. Both have been second team All-America selections.
Dixon leads the Gophers in kills (445), total blocks (159) and points (556.5) and is second, among regulars, in hitting percentage (.398). Wittman ranks second in kills (406) and points (459.5), and first in digs (413) and double-doubles (15).
“I can’t imagine not playing with [Dixon],” Wittman said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet, but it’s been a great college career.”