Fall practice officially begins Saturday for the Gophers volleyball team, but in this day and age that doesn’t mean much. Most of the team has been in the gym for large chunks of the summer already — including two of its best players sweating away inside the U of M Sports Pavilion and nationwide with USA Volleyball opportunities.

Senior Tori Dixon trained for two weeks with the full U.S. National Team, getting a taste of what post-college volleyball might be like. Fellow senior Ashley Wittman, meanwhile, trained with the USA Volleyball A2 program, which features the nation’s top college players.

“I don’t think anything else would have prepared me even close to what I did there,” Dixon said. “It was definitely an eye-opener.”

Wittman said her experience learning different styles from other top players will help this season with the Gophers, who will have a 20-player roster thanks to a massive influx of incoming freshmen and transfers. Many of those players already have been in the weight room and participating during informal open gym sessions with their more seasoned Gophers teammates.

“We have a big class coming in, and the more we can get everyone on the same page, the more it will help,” Wittman said.

Coach Hugh McCutcheon enters his second year with the program after leading the Gophers to the Elite 8 in 2012. He is hoping that the large roster — not every player will get to travel to away matches — will foster intense competition in practices and make the entire squad better.

“This will certainly make it more interesting in the gym,” McCutcheon said. “Not everyone is going to be happy, but overall the intensity in the gym and the improvement that will have to happen ... I think that will help us.”

Just where that leaves the Gophers at the end of the year remains to be seen, but they’re eager to get [officially] started.

“We’re going to be awesome, I hope,” Dixon said. “We have a good core of returning players and an awesome freshman class that will push the people currently on the team to a whole different level.”

Michael Rand