From the outside, it seems strange: a team starting the season without its head coach. But among the inside ranks of the Gophers volleyball team, everything is simply business as usual, players and interim coach Laura Bush say.
"The team has really maintained a steady, straight course," said Bush, who stepped in as the interim coach at the beginning of last year. She's maintaining that role for the beginning of the 2012 season until permanent head coach Hugh McCutcheon returns after leading the U.S. women's Olympic volleyball team to a silver medal at the London Olympic Games. His arrival is expected soon, but no date has been set. Bush will stay on as an assistant when he arrives.
In the meantime, the season opens Saturday with a doubleheader at the James Madison Classic in Harrisonburg, Va. The Gophers will play James Madison in the morning and Appalachian State in the later match. The Gophers are ranked No. 16 nationally after losing three key players to graduation. But they return a solid core from a team that advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 last season before falling to Iowa State.
Returning All-America juniors Ashley Wittman (outside hitter) and Tori Dixon (middle blocker) as well as consistent senior outside hitter Katherine Harms will root a team that welcomes two transfers and five freshman. Minnesota has more depth than last season, which has fostered a competitive atmosphere as players vie for spots.
"It's very competitive all around the board," said Dixon, who along with Wittman was named pre-season All-Big Ten for the second consecutive season. "No one spot is completely guaranteed because we have so many options and different things the coaches are trying."
Most notable, perhaps, are the battles at libero -- the defensive specialist role vacated when Jessica Granquist graduated last season -- and at setter. The libero spot likely will go to one of three freshmen: Kalysta White, Lindsey Lawmaster or Morgan Bohl. Meanwhile, the only returning setter on the roster is senior Mia Tabberson, but freshman Karyn Israel and Santa Clara transfer Alexandra Palmer provide interesting options.
Even if McCutcheon isn't there yet, the Gophers start the season with a year of experience in several aspects of the system he plans to run at Minnesota, using more aggressive serving techniques and changing to swing-blocking, which takes time to learn properly. Last season, the Gophers were outblocked in many matches because the style was so new.
"We'd never done that before," Wittman said. "It was definitely hard because none of us were used to it, so that was a huge change in our game ... but I think we benefited from it."