When Dana Knudsen chose to leave her native California to come to Minnesota, she understood the reaction of the many friends who thought she must have lost her mind. A few years earlier, she would have felt the same way.
At age 18, the quintessential California girl could not fathom playing college volleyball outside of her home state. After three years at Santa Clara University, though, Knudsen had changed her outlook. "I needed to get out in the world and see things, be around different kinds of people,'' she said. "And Minnesota was a perfect fit.''
Knudsen committed last January to play her senior season with the Gophers. A few months later, she learned she wasn't alone; Santa Clara teammate Alexandra Palmer, also seeking a change of scenery, decided to join the Gophers as well. The two West Coast expatriates adapted without a hitch, becoming integral members of a Gophers team that will play Purdue on Friday in the NCAA tournament's round of 16.
The 6-3 Knudsen, a middle blocker, is among an array of powerful hitters who give the Gophers plenty of options on offense. Palmer, a 5-7 junior setter, is a gym rat whose skills and savvy have strengthened the Gophers' attack.
Among many new experiences this season -- including buying heavy sweaters -- none has been as gratifying as advancing to the NCAA regional semifinal in West Lafayette, Ind., where the winner of the Gophers-Purdue match will play Penn State or Kentucky on Saturday for a berth in the Final Four.
"Palmer and I both wanted to be great players, and we wanted to win a national championship,'' said Knudsen, from Sacramento, Calif. "In the last year of my college career, I wanted to go out with everything I had. This has been a great experience.''
Palmer hasn't even had time to miss the beach, where she went every day. A native of Laguna Beach, Calif., she averages 10.01 assists per set, ranking eighth in the Big Ten. Her setting has propelled the Gophers to a .301 hitting percentage, fifth-best mark in the nation.
Knudsen is hitting .403 this season and averages 0.89 blocks per set, both second best on the team. She shined in the Gophers' first- and second-round NCAA victories over Liberty and Creighton last weekend, matching her season high with 11 kills and had five blocks against Creighton.
Though Knudsen made the all-West Coast Conference team last season as a junior at Santa Clara, she had developed a desire for travel and adventure. Knudsen, who is pursuing a master's degree in sports administration, said Minnesota offered the ideal combination of academics and athletics. During a campus visit, she clicked with the players and the coaches, but Laura Bush, interim head coach at the time, offered no promises regarding her role.
That was fine with Knudsen, who was looking for coaches who would push her to improve.
Palmer also came in with no assurances and felt the same way.
"I was just thankful for the opportunity,'' said Palmer, who chose the Gophers independently of Knudsen. "I came in with an open mind, just wanting to play the best volleyball I could. I've learned so much.''
Both players ended up starting most matches this season. Knudsen had only 10 weeks to get into game shape after having reconstructive surgery on her ankle last spring, but coach Hugh McCutcheon said she improved her blocking this season and has been eager to embrace the Gophers' system. Palmer loves film sessions and working on the technical details of her position.
Knudsen said she is sad that her time with the Gophers will be brief. But she and Palmer are committed to making their first season outside California last as long as possible.
"We're fortunate to have both of them,'' said Bush, now an associate coach for the Gophers. "We would be a different team without either one.''