Patrick Reusse: New Gophers volleyball coach passes eye test

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2012 - 10:38 PM

Hugh McCutcheon showed his first Gophers squad enough in a failed Olympic gold medal bid to fire the team up for the fall season.

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Gophers volleyball players cheered Saturday at the Sports Pavilion as the U.S. team, led by first-year Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon, won the first set against Brazil in the Olympic final. But the excitement faded as the Brazilians swept the next three sets, forcing McCutcheon’s squad to settle for silver.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Big-time volleyball programs have a short spring season as well as the elongated regular season that stretches from late August to the NCAA tournament that starts in late November. The Gophers didn't have much activity last spring, with only eight players on the roster.

One of those players left, leading to a roster of seven returnees and seven newcomers (five freshmen, two transfers) for the 2012 season.

"It's unusual to have so many new players," senior setter Mia Tabberson said. "This is a very young team by Minnesota's standards."

And melding the veterans with the newcomers is not the No. 1 transition facing these Gophers:

Laura Bush was the interim coach in 2011, when the Gophers won two NCAA tournament games and reached the final 16. She also was the coach in the spring and has started drills in that capacity this month.

Soon, Bush will move back to her previous assignment as an assistant coach to make room for Hugh McCutcheon, the coach of the U.S. Olympic women's team. In an inspired hire, former athletic director Joel Maturi was able to announce in February 2011 that McCutcheon had agreed to coach the Gophers.

The stipulation was that he would complete his duties as the Olympic coach in London before taking over at Minnesota.

McCutcheon had a brief meeting with players when he came to the campus in 2011 to sign his contract. Asked her impression, Tabberson said: "I've never met him. The one weekend he was here, I was home in Indiana, watching my brother in the state swim meet."

On Saturday, McCutcheon's squad was the favorite to give the United States a first gold medal in women's volleyball. The opponent was Brazil, the mercurial group that had defeated the U.S. for the gold medal four years earlier in Beijing.

NBC had decided to tape-delay the match for prime time -- which, I'm told, was not a first in these Olympics.

The Gophers wanted to see McCutcheon on the sideline. They wanted to see former Gophers great Lindsey Berg. They wanted to see all the American heroes for this generation of collegians.

The nbcolympics.com option was used to ship the live telecast from a computer to the big screen in their team room at the Sports Pavilion. The match started at 12:30 p.m. in the Twin Cities, and the early evidence was that this would be a festive 90 minutes or so.

The first set was a 25-11 blowout for the Americans. And then a strange thing happened: The No. 1-rated Yanks started allowing Brazil's outside hitters to blast away. They were a sorry match for Brazil when it came to digging out kill attempts, and they started serving as efficiently as Dwight Howard shoots free throws.

Brazil rolled through the next three sets and repeated as the Olympic champion.

Asked how a momentum swing such as Saturday's occurs in this game, Tabberson said: "Volleyball is a game of momentum. And it can revolve around one ball -- a huge kill, a miraculous dig, a bad mistake. Suddenly, the confidence goes to the other side, and you need big energy to get it back."

Tabberson's most memorable moment as a Gopher was a match against mighty Penn State late in the 2010 regular season.

"They beat us badly in the first set, and beat us in a closer set in the second, and it looked like a quick night," Tabberson said. "And then we won the third, and the fourth. We had a big crowd, and it was so loud in here [Sports Pavilion] in the fifth set, and we finally beat them 21-19, something like that ..."

Tabberson smiled and said: "That was a great night for momentum."

Not in London on Saturday. The Gophers had to sit glumly as Brazil put away their new coach's team.

Tori Dixon was a freshman in 2010 when Mike Hebert, the coach who turned the Gophers into a big-time program, announced his retirement.

"We were kind of hoping that someone at the university might talk to Hugh McCutcheon about the job," Dixon said. "He was married to Wiz [Liz Bachman], and she was from here, and we thought, 'Maybe there's a chance.'"

And now that it's about to become a reality? "Laura has handled the transition very well," Dixon said. "Now, it's going to be great to have him here."

Junior Ashley Wittman said the McCutcheon system is a fast-paced, attacking style. "We've been using his system since he was announced as coach," she said. "It's a system where you go from defense to offense quickly. And we've gotten better at it. We're playing faster than we were a year ago."

The Gophers weren't sure on Saturday when McCutcheon will take over. They are sure they can't wait.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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