Losing the national player of the year and other team leaders to graduation seemed like holes the Gophers would need time to fill before they became the No. 1 volleyball team in the country.
But after going undefeated in the first two weeks of the season, Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon finds a much different looking squad on top again after a 5-0 start.
Good luck getting McCutcheon to pay much attention to the No. 1 ranking, though.
This isn’t uncharted territory anymore. His program did it twice last season. Before that, the U hadn’t been No. 1 since 2004.
“We were No. 1 last year for a while, so it’s not unheard of,” McCutcheon said Tuesday. “I don’t think we’re punching above our weight here. But the rankings don’t mean a whole lot until the end.”
Part of the early recognition is a result of McCutcheon not being afraid to test his team before Big Ten play.
A year ago, a loss to Stanford in the second match of the season motivated the U to win 11 consecutive matches, eventually earning the program’s first No. 1 ranking in more than a decade.
This season, Minnesota beat No. 11 North Carolina in the opener. But the biggest challenge before Big Ten play starts later this month will be Friday against former No. 1 Texas in the American Campus Classic. The Gophers also will face Denver and Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Thursday in Austin.
“We really try to max out the competitiveness of our preseason schedule,” McCutcheon said. “I don’t know if our athletes [like it]. Every year we have to come out and get going right away. But that’s the way I want it.”
The Gophers were No. 1 for the first time under McCutcheon on Oct. 3 last season after a 12-1 start, but they lost two days later at Penn State.
Texas and Stanford spent only a week at No. 1 the first two weeks of this season before losing. Five preseason top 10 teams have at least one loss. But three Big Ten teams in the top 10 still are undefeated: Minnesota, No. 3 Penn State and No. 6 Wisconsin.
With the graduation of national player of the year Sarah Wilhite, along with twins Hannah and Paige Tapp, the Gophers needed a talented recruit such as Stephanie Samedy to make an immediate impact. The 6-2 freshman from Florida has a team-high 74 kills and leads the Big Ten with 4.63 kills per set. Samedy earned MVP honors in last week’s Diet Coke Classic at home.
Five of the Gophers’ top six hitters are either freshmen or sophomores so far, but the Gophers don’t lack experience. Junior Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the Big Ten setter of the week, and four seniors provide leadership.
Those veterans look at the Gophers’ No. 1 ranking as a distinction they know can vanish quickly. Their goals are much more long term.
“That’s how we’ve learned to frame it,” senior middle blocker Molly Lohman said. “It’s exciting, but we still have work to do. Hugh has really made us think in that aspect.”