As a young volleyball player, Katherine Harms assumed the best way to get a kill was the simplest. Every time she rose above the net, she aimed to smash the ball as hard as she could.
Harms eventually learned that power alone was not enough. Finesse and strategy were important, too, particularly after she began playing for the Gophers. With some help from new coach Hugh McCutcheon, Harms found the ideal balance this fall -- just in time to end her college career with her best season ever.
The senior enters Friday's first-round NCAA tournament match against Liberty University as one of the Big Ten's premier attackers. Harms ranks fifth in the league in kills (4.13 per set) and third in points (4.83 per set), and she has helped the 11th-ranked Gophers become one of the best- hitting teams in the country. Earlier this week, she and teammate Tori Dixon were unanimous selections to the all-Big Ten team.
Though Harms and Dixon are the standouts, McCutcheon noted that the Gophers' success has been built on the shoulders of many players -- and Dixon said their four-match win streak is evidence of how unified they have become. Harms hopes to continue her upward trajectory as she plays for the final time at the Sports Pavilion, where she discovered how to blend strength with savvy.
"Knowing this is the last year I'm going to play for this program, and knowing I have the ability to help my team so greatly, I wanted to make sure I was doing everything in my power to help us be the best team possible," she said. "This year, I've finally been able to figure out the right time to use different shots, instead of just trying to power through everybody. Now, I'm finding better ways to do things."
The Gophers are seeded eighth in the 64-team tournament field. They are making their 14th consecutive appearance, and they are hosts for the first and second rounds for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Since 2009, the Gophers are 65-9 at the Sports Pavilion, where they are averaging 3,467 fans this season -- the third-highest attendance in NCAA Division I.
Harms and Dixon said the transition to McCutcheon has been smooth. The coach joined the program Aug. 30 after guiding the U.S. women's team to a silver medal at the London Olympics. Though they were in awe of his reputation, Dixon said, the players had no inkling of his coaching style.
He didn't enter yelling and screaming, as some of them thought he might. Instead, McCutcheon won their trust with a calm demeanor and by treating them as mature adults. Harms said the coach is a straightforward communicator who knows how to motivate each individual, and his emphasis on passing and serving has kept the team focused on the details that separate the elite from the merely good.
McCutcheon, in turn, said Harms was receptive to his message of improving her consistency and shot selection. A six-rotation player, she has progressed statistically in each of her four seasons on both offense and defense. This season, she has 458 kills and 275 digs, well above her numbers last year.
Watching Harms become a complete player, the coach said, was only one of the many pleasures of his debut season with the Gophers. He couldn't predict how far his team might advance in the tournament, but he said he believes it has the capacity to go far.
"Not having spent any time with these athletes, I didn't really know what to expect," he said. "It's hard for me to say that where we are today is where I projected we'd be. But I did know from the beginning that we had a chance to be good. And I think we are a good volleyball team."