As the Gophers volleyball team played 15 of its first 21 matches this season on the road, players couldn't help feeling like there was no place like home. It turns out staying home in December is their specific reward for performing well enough during all those early travels.
Minnesota has the somewhat rare opportunity to reach the NCAA Final Four without leaving its home arena. The U was already slated to host next weekend's regional -- regardless of whether the Gophers played in it or not -- and by earning one of the top 16 overall seeds (No. 13) in the 64-team NCAA field, the squad also is playing host to the first and second rounds of the tournament starting Friday at the U Sports Pavilion.
Gophers interim head coach Laura Bush said the team is treating each weekend as its own miniature tournament, but the opportunity is clear: Win four consecutive home matches and the Gophers will be in the Final Four. That's in San Antonio, but by then Minnesota wouldn't mind being on the road again.
"Our whole team is excited," sophomore outside hitter Ashley Wittman said. "We did spend a lot of the first part of our season traveling. It wears and tears on your body, and it's tiring. It's nice to be home. We get our own beds, our own routines and our home crowd."
Winning, of course, is not guaranteed. The Gophers (18-11) face North Dakota State (26-8) on Friday in a rematch of last year's first-round matchup, which was also at the Sports Pavilion. The winner will face either Western Michigan or Washington.
The Gophers' season has been a mixed bag of highs and lows -- or as Bush puts it, "moments of brilliance and moments of not-so-much-brilliant." Among the highlights: back-to-back sweeps in early September over Texas, the No. 1 overall NCAA tournament seed, and another sweep at Illinois, the No. 3 overall seed. Sprinkled in, though, were inconsistent performances -- including a three-set loss at Northwestern, a non-tournament team, one day before winning at Illinois.
"I still don't think we've peaked yet," Bush said. "When we are consistent back-to-back, we are a very formidable team."
Wittman and middle blocker Tori Dixon -- both of whom were named first-team All-Big Ten players -- said the Gophers found more consistency near the end of the season. Junior Mia Tabberson has reclaimed the role of setter after splitting time throughout the year with freshman Kellie McNeil.
"Mia has had experience already," Wittman said. "It's hard for a freshman setter to come in and ... run a smooth offense."
If there's any time to be running smoothly, this is it.
"We played really well our last few matches," Dixon said. "We're definitely going off playing well, and that will hopefully give us a boost in the tournament."