With victories in their first two matches, the Gophers moved up two spots to No. 2 in the national volleyball rankings Monday. Coach Hugh McCutcheon greeted that news not with applause, but with an apathetic shrug.
Last weekend’s impressive start — including a sweep of No. 11 North Carolina — did nothing to change his view that the Gophers will be much better in November than they are in August. He believes that’s inevitable for a roster that lost three All-America players and added six freshmen. No matter what the polls say, McCutcheon has counseled fans to be patient during the early stages of the season.
Yet a group that has placed a premium on unity seems to be developing it quickly. That rapid progress, if not the polls, delighted McCutcheon as the Gophers prepared to open their home schedule with the Diet Coke Classic this weekend at the Sports Pavilion.
“I was happy with the results,” McCutcheon said of the opening weekend, which also included a 3-1 victory over Louisville. “The consistency of play against North Carolina was something to be optimistic about, and Saturday [against Louisville], the athletes were able to manage adversity [losing the first set] and got back into rhythm.
“Our best is probably going to come toward the end of the season. There’s plenty of room for optimism; there’s a ton of talent, and we’ve got a bunch of good kids working hard. At some point, that’s going to pay dividends.’’
In his sixth season as Gophers coach, McCutcheon is remolding a team that lost significant firepower. Six players — including national player of the year Sarah Wilhite and twins Hannah and Paige Tapp — completed their eligibility after guiding the Gophers to their second consecutive Final Four.
Wilhite led the team with 537 kills, and the Tapps were among the top four in kills and blocks. The three took pride in helping institute a selfless, supportive team dynamic over their four seasons, believing that set the table for long-term success. This year’s upperclassmen already have taken on that task, which has hastened the integration of a talented freshman class.
Rookie opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy was named co-Big Ten player of the week after beginning her college career in grand style. She reached double digits in kills and digs in both of last weekend’s matches, finishing with a team-high 31 kills, hitting .315 and adding 27 digs and five blocks. Redshirt freshman Regan Pittman had 15 kills and nine blocks, and freshman Jasmyn Martin of Hopkins had nine kills and five blocks.
Four newcomers — including freshman defensive specialist Lauren Barnes, who also earned praise from McCutcheon — played all seven sets in the two matches.
“[The freshmen] did a good job of managing our emotions and playing with energy,” Samedy said. “Honestly, I wasn’t nervous. I was ready to go.
“We all have a pretty good connection. We’re still trying to build that up. It’s still early. But as a team, we made sure we took care of business.”
Senior middle blocker Molly Lohman said developing that unity has been a priority since the team came together last summer. Setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, a first-team All-America, has been putting in extra work with the hitters, and upperclassmen have organized movie nights and other team activities.
Outside hitter Alexis Hart — second on the team with 359 kills as a freshman — said it doesn’t feel like a team with six rookies. Lohman added that the team’s style and standard of play won’t be much different.
“Early on, we’re learning to work together as 18,” said Lohman, the team’s top blocker last season. “It’s not one lineup here and one lineup there. We’re all learning to work with each other, and everyone is very selfless and committed.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces, which is super exciting for us. I don’t think that changes our game at all. We have so much depth, we can turn to many different players.”
That depth, McCutcheon said, makes this roster renewal different from his last major shift. In 2014, the Gophers moved on without senior All-Americas Tori Dixon and Ashley Wittman, who led them to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. He believes this group has more overall talent, with players capable of quickly filling the void left by departed stars.
The coach anticipates some fluctuation as he experiments with new lineups, and as players adapt to fresh roles or tougher competition.
But McCutcheon said he intends to rely on all 18 players. Even now, he is pleased with the Gophers’ balance, work ethic and devotion to one another.
That’s made him all the more eager to see what the Gophers can become.
“Give this team a chance to evolve, to grow and mature,’’ McCutcheon said. “And let’s see what they’re like toward the end.”