You can find zealots who hold firmly to the notion that all things in a Big Ten athletic department should be sacrificed at the altar of football and men’s basketball.
The lie of this theory – and the grandness of a state university supporting a full menu of athletics – was played out on Friday night behind the huge west wall of Williams Arena.
Inside the big arena, Richard Pitino’s basketball Gophers were playing an exhibition game against Southwest Minnesota State that was going to reveal … well, basically zero concerning Pitino’s third team in Minneapolis.
Behind the wall, in the Sports Pavilion, Hugh McCutcheon’s fourth collection of volleyball Gophers was playing to hold first place in the Big Ten and to stick around its No. 4 national ranking.
The opponent was Michigan State, with Michigan following the Spartans into the Pavilion on Saturday night.
We complain much about the ineptitude of Gophers athletics, based on the long tradition of being nobodies in Big Ten football, and solidly in the second division more often than not in men’s basketball.
Football and men’s basketball (and men’s hockey) are not all that matters, simply because they operate at a profit.
This is not business and capitalism. This is education and opportunity. If you’re a talented athlete in a team sport, a university with the funding of Minnesota’s should be proud to have you in one of its uniforms.
There’s not a program at Minnesota with more reason to be proud than volleyball. These Gophers play in a Division I world with over 300 teams. The tradition is to play a rugged non-conference schedule, followed by 20 matches in the Big Ten – a conference that in recent times has been the most-powerful in the nation.
The 2014 season was strange for the Gophers, in that they started off nationally ranked, finished 9-11 (eighth) in the Big Ten, 19-12 overall and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
The Gophers had been to the Final Four thrice, in 2003, 2007 and 2009, with an asterisk attached to none of these appearances. Mike Hebert, the program builder, retired after the 2011 season.
Joel Maturi, then the athletic director, pulled off his No. 1 coup in hiring coaches when he was able to land Hugh McCutcheon as Hebert’s replacement. The provision was that Laura Bush would handle the coaching while McCutcheon prepared his U.S. national women’s team for the 2012 Olympics in London.
McCutcheon took over quickly after the Olympics and guided the 2012 Gophers to the NCAA’s final eight. They reached the round of 16 in 2013.
And then no NCAA tournament … what the?
The top seven consisted of a junior, three sophomores and three freshmen. There was talent, but enough experience to handle the grind of a Big Ten schedule that generally requires two rugged matches per weekend.
McCutcheon took the Gophers to Japan for nine days in March. The coach’s international connections provided this bonus: The Gophers became the first U.S. college team to stay and work out at Japan’s National Training Center.
Samantha Seliger-Swenson, a senior at Hopkins High School, graduated early so that she could enroll for spring semester. That also allowed her to practice with the Gophers and to make the trip to Japan.
We’re going to call her Triple S from now on, and people willing to pay attention should be hearing much about her and awards won over the length of her career at Minnesota.
The run of S’s don’t end with her name. She is a setter and the favorite target for her variety of passes is Daly Santana, the outside hitter.
Santana was the junior star of the Gophers that failed to reach expectations in 2014. She’s now the senior leader of a team that started off unranked and has climbed steadily to reach No. 4.
On Friday, Seliger-Swenson was setting up Santana repeatedly, and Daly – pronounced Dolly – was delivering the volleyball as though she was Noah Syndegaard throwing a baseball.
This is definite: An opponent doesn’t want a Santana fastball coming at her head any more than Alcides Escobar wanted Syndegaard’s coming at his.
Triple S had 34 assists, eight digs and three blocks, Santana had 16 kills, and the Gophers rolled past the Spartans, 25-21, 25-13, 25-21.
As for what was happening next door on the elevated floor, what did it matter?