As the No. 4-ranked Gophers volleyball team prepares for its home opener Friday, the exploits of seniors Ashley Wittman and Tori Dixon as pillars of Minnesota’s formidable Big Ten offense have been well-documented.
But there is, perhaps, an equally important factor that led to last year’s Gophers posting their best hitting percentage since volleyball became an NCAA-sanctioned sport in 1981.
While starting setter Alexandra Palmer doesn’t get nearly as much of the attention for her contributions as some of her teammates, she is an unmistakable cog in the new heights of success. While the Gophers filtered through four other setters in the previous two years, Palmer’s emergence as a reliable force has given the team stability, while those around her have improved.
“I think it helps a lot, as a hitter at least, being able to grow with a setter,” Dixon said. “A good setter gives you the sets you need. For example, I like my sets faster. And you know, for someone else, a different teammate, they might want it higher or lower — so it’s just about being able to adjust for each hitter. Knowing what each hitter likes and learning their range and learning what they don’t like.”
Palmer, who had 1,247 assists last season and has 140 already this year after the Gophers’ four road victories last weekend in Alabama, seems to have an uncanny ability to sort through all the differences and remember them on the fly.
From 2011 to 2012, when Palmer joined the Gophers as a transfer from the University of Santa Clara in California, the Gophers’ hitting percentage ballooned from .233 to .292, eighth best in the nation.
The Gophers’ previous high in hitting percentage was .275, in 2001.
“The whole offense is running through this one person,” coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “They have to be completely aware of our strengths and weaknesses and our opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and continually try to make sure we’ve got the right matchups.”
Some of it is, perhaps, innate — Palmer’s sister, Allison, is a sophomore setter for Arizona State. Part of it, though, comes from informal studying. The 5-7 senior sits down with every teammate, and makes a point to hang out with freshmen, sophomores and juniors in groups off the court as well.
It helps that she’s an avid communicator — an aspect that McCutcheon seeks in such a position — and doesn’t shy away from criticism. Palmer constantly checks in with her hitters, urging them to alert her if her sets are even an inch off of where they operate most comfortably.
“If you have a quiet setter, good luck,” Palmer said. “Sometimes I’m going to say things they don’t respond well to, and I learn. … It’s just getting out there and talking to them as much as I can — failing in some ways but succeeding in others.”
The lines of communication appear to be yielding results.
Dixon’s game, in particular, has benefited, with her individual hitting percentage rising from .342 in 2011 to .436 last year, fourth best in the nation.
With a new influx of players this season, and a massive roster of 20, the process of learning her teammates’ tendencies once again will pose a challenge, but Palmer already has gotten a head start. Over the summer, the optional team workouts were mandated by the seniors, who had the team lifting and running in the mornings and participating in open gym in the afternoons. There, Palmer began the threads of communication that will span the entire season.
As for the limelight and acknowledgment, she isn’t expecting any.
“There’s a saying that setters get no glory — we don’t,” Palmer said. “I’ve been a setter since I was 11 years old, so I’ve known my whole life that I’ll never get all the glory. You know, give it to my hitters — I’m supposed to make them look good. It’s not about me, anyway, it’s about my team.”