This is the 25th anniversary of my discovery of Gophers volleyball as a source for entertainment and a couple columns per winter. Stephanie Schleuder still was coaching in 1992 and the Lakeville pair, Heidi Olhausen and Kate Callahan, was the first topic for a column.
Heidi and Kate were characters. It was an outstanding interview.
On Friday night, I made a season debut at the Pavilion for the Gophers match vs. Maryland. A day earlier, I interviewed Molly Lohman, a senior, a co-captain and a four-year starter as a middle blocker.
As always, she was a personable, committed athlete in what has become the most-entertaining sport on the University of Minnesota campus. The main reason is that, in contrast to the higher profile teams, there is a very small percentage of cupcakes on the volleyball schedule.
The Big Ten is the best conference in the country by a sizable margin. Get this: When the NCAA tournament committee for volleyball released its first tentative rating a week ago, the top three teams were Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota.
The Gophers have been to consecutive Final Fours. They graduated Sarah Wilhite, the national player of the year in 2016, and the excellent Tapp twins –- Hannah and Paige – from those teams.
They now have three freshmen, Stephanie Samedy, Jasmyn Martin and Regan Pittman, as starters up front, and Lauren Barnes as a defensive specialist. The last rebuild in 2014 caused the Gophers to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years.
That won’t be the case in 2017. The Gophers defeated a much-improved Maryland and then Ohio State in sweeps over the weekend, improving to 23-2 overall and 12-2 in the Big Ten. There were sellouts approaching 5,500 on both nights.
The glue of the Gophers is Samantha Seliger-Swenson – “Sam’’ to everyone in the program, “Triple S’’ to me – as the setter. Last season, as she sent passes to Wilhite, the Tapps and Lohman, it was like watching Leonard Bernstein* conduct the New York Philharmonic.
(*Note: I never saw him, but I actually heard of him, so Leonard must have been good at it.)
There were sour notes at times on Friday, as Triple S tried to get on the same wave length with the freshmen. That’s understandable: She was in her second year with the great hitters of 2016, and now the extra-talented freshmen are still adjusting to the college game.
Samedy, though … wow.
She’s a 6-foot-2 hitter from Clermont, Fla. She had 18 kills on Friday, a number of which came on smashes from two long strides behind the net. She also finessed a couple of winning teardrops from in close when Maryland was expecting a blast.
Alexis Hart is a sophomore now, and a tremendous hitter, and Martin, from Hopkins High, is going to be very good. The current Gophers are top three with the NCAA tournament committee, No. 5 in the coaches poll, and they could be even better in 2018 when Triple S has more experience orchestrating this young talent.
I asked Samedy a couple of questions after the match, including what she thought of Friday’s snow. The young lady from central Florida said it was the first time that she had seen a real snow.
Forty-five minutes later, I was leaving the Pavilion and Stephanie and a friend still were standing in the alcove behind the glass doors. As a Minnesotan of seven decades experience, I offered this advice:
“You might as well go out and meet the winter, Stephanie. If you want it to be warmer, you’ll be standing here until May.’’