The Gophers volleyball team begins its season this weekend in Madison, Wis., with matches against No. 11 North Carolina and Louisville at the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. After reaching the Final Four in each of the past two seasons, coach Hugh McCutcheon said he is still “figuring some things out” with a roster that lost three of its top four scorers from last season, but a deep well of young talent gives him plenty of options. Here’s what’s ahead for the fourth-ranked team in the nation:
Friday, 4:30 p.m.: No. 4 Gophers vs No. 11 North Carolina
Saturday, 4 p.m.: Gophers vs. Louisville
Where: UW Field House, Madison, Wis.
Video: Matches will be streamed on BTN Plus.
Preview: North Carolina returns most of the roster from a team that went 29-4 last season, including a 19-1 ACC mark. Taylor Leath was the league’s player of the year and a second-team All-America. Julia Scoles was the ACC freshman of the year, and Taylor Fricano joins them as a preseason all-ACC pick. The Tar Heels’ 2016 season ended with a loss to UCLA in an NCAA tournament regional at the Sports Pavilion. The Gophers are 5-1 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, including victories over North Carolina and Louisville last year.
Louisville features a new head coach, former Nebraska assistant Dani Busboom Kelly, and finished 12-18 last season.
Seventh-ranked Wisconsin is hosting the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and will play Louisville on Friday and North Carolina on Saturday.
After Madison, the Gophers host the Diet Coke Classic tournament on Sept. 1 for their home opener.
GOPHERS’ NEW LOOK
All-Americans Sarah Wilhite, Paige Tapp and Hannah Tapp completed their eligibility last year and have moved on to the U.S. national team, leaving a substantial void. Still, the Gophers have a strong core in their 11 returning letterwinners, as well as an intriguing group of newcomers.
Sophomore outside hitter Alexis Hart is the top returning scorer and was second to Wilhite — the 2016 national player of the year — with 359 kills. She was named to the preseason all-Big Ten team, along with junior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson and senior middle blocker Molly Lohman. Senior libero/defensive specialist Dalianliz Rosado led the team with 511 digs last season.
Redshirt freshman Regan Pittman is a hard-hitting, 6-5 middle blocker who played for the U.S. under-20 junior national team last summer. The team’s six freshmen, ranked the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation, give the Gophers impressive depth. First-team All-America Stephanie Samedy was the nation’s No. 5 recruit, and Jasmyn Martin was a prep standout at Hopkins.
DIVING RIGHT IN
The Gophers’ 11-match nonconference schedule also includes a match at Texas, ranked No. 1 in the preseason national poll, on Sept. 8 as part of the American Campus Classic. McCutcheon is a proponent of playing a tough nonconference schedule to prepare for the unrelenting challenge of the Big Ten season. Even in a year of major roster turnover, he’s happy to open Friday against a highly ranked opponent.
“I want to know what we’ve got right away,” he said. “I don’t want to have a patty-cake preseason and find all of a sudden that we’re getting into trouble when we get into our conference. I’d rather play strong teams now, see where we’re at and hopefully learn. If we take a few lumps early, then let’s take a few lumps early.”