Where others might have seen a disadvantage, Hugh McCutcheon saw an opportunity. The Gophers ended their regular-season schedule with a gantlet of four ranked opponents, including No. 1 Nebraska and No. 3 Wisconsin—and as daunting as that seemed, their coach knew it could steel his team for the rigors of the NCAA volleyball tournament.
The No. 2 Gophers won all four matches, earning them the No. 2 overall seed when the 64-team tournament field was announced Sunday. It also gave them a wealth of confidence for Friday’s first-round match against North Dakota at the Sports Pavilion. After beating 13th-ranked Michigan State, No. 18 Michigan, the Cornhuskers and the Badgers in a run of grueling five-set matches, the Gophers (25-4) enter the tournament on a 10-match winning streak and claimed the No. 2 seed for the second year in a row.
USC and Hawaii also will play in the first round Friday at the Sports Pavilion, where the winners will face off Saturday in the second round.
The Big Ten put eight teams into the field and earned three of the top four seeds. Nebraska is seeded No. 1, and Wisconsin is No. 3. Michigan State (9), Michigan (12) and Penn State (16) also are among the 16 seeded teams.
“We saw it as an opportunity, we really did,’’ McCutcheon said of the challenging end to the regular season. “We know our goals are to be great in our conference and to go far into the tournament. And to do that, you’ve got to play consecutive tough matches.
“If we’re going to learn lessons, I’d rather learn them now, rather than in the tournament — where there are no second chances. We really framed it that way, and the athletes certainly embraced that.’’
The Gophers played North Dakota earlier this season, beating the Fighting Hawks 3-1 at the Sports Pavilion on Sept. 16. They are 13-0 at home this fall and have gone undefeated at the Pavilion over the past two seasons.
Earning a top-four seed gives the Gophers the chance to host the next two rounds as well. For the first time, the NCAA has not predetermined sites for the regionals. After this weekend’s first and second rounds at campus sites, the regional semifinals and finals will be hosted by the highest remaining seed in each region Dec. 9-10. The Final Four will be held at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 15-17.
McCutcheon said he was eager to see how the Gophers would respond to a serious challenge, and they did not disappoint him during a nine-day run against the Big Ten’s best. They were pushed to the limit in all four matches, yet they maintained their poise and prevailed. The Gophers finished 17-3 in Big Ten play and tied Wisconsin for second in the conference standings, behind Nebraska.
“There’s a decision that has to be made whenever you get into a tough moment in the season,’’ the coach said. “What are you going to do when it gets a little bit rough? I know our athletes were tired, and I know they were emotionally drained after a lot of consecutive big matches. But to continue to find ways to win, to continue to find ways to connect and help each other out, that opportunity will be invaluable for us moving forward in the tournament.’’
Senior middle blocker Paige Tapp agreed.
“What better opportunity to prepare for the tournament than to go up against that type of competition?’’ she said. “Our goal was to be our best in December, and I think we’ve really become our best. We’ve improved every match. And I don’t think we’re done. We’re excited to keep improving every day.’’