Ever since Hugh McCutcheon took over the Gophers’ volleyball program, he has rejected the easy road in nonconference play. The coach likes to schedule some early tests against highly ranked opponents, allowing him to quickly size up his team’s character, abilities and areas that need work.
When the Gophers lost back-to-back matches to Oregon and Stanford in early September, McCutcheon saw a team with a “credibility gap,’’ one whose play did not measure up to the high standards it talked about. He gave the Gophers two choices: They could match their words with action, or lower the goals they had set for this season. By embracing the first option, they launched a win streak that reached eight matches with Friday’s sweep of No. 7 Illinois.
The No. 3 Gophers dismantled the Illini 25-22, 25-19, 25-20 at Maturi Pavilion to move to 7-0 in the Big Ten. The win extended their best start in league play since 1999. Though they committed more errors than usual, the Gophers, 12-2 overall, persisted before a crowd announced at 5,550, demonstrating the same resilience McCutcheon saw after that unhappy weekend in California.
“Even though it was a little choppy, I was still really proud of the way we were able to manage the match,’’ McCutcheon said. “I thought we stayed composed. There were lots of positives and some nice individual performances.
“We made a few more mistakes than normal, but we were able to compensate in some other parts of our game. I think that means this team has some character, and they’re able to work through some stuff, which is really important.’’
The balanced attack that has become their trademark helped the Gophers record their sixth sweep in seven Big Ten matches. Alexis Hart led the team with 15 kills, while Stephanie Samedy added 10 and Regan Pittman nine.
They were set up for success by Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who finished with 41 assists as she got all her hitters involved. The Gophers outhit Illinois .270 to .194 and outdug the Illini 50-38.
During the two matches in California at the Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge, McCutcheon hoped his team would encounter some difficulty and figure out how to extricate itself. In a 3-1 loss to Oregon, the Gophers started very slowly and never recovered. They lost to Stanford by the same score, then came home and faced a reckoning.
McCutcheon sensed his team didn’t yet understand the slim margin of error that separated the very best teams from everyone else. “We can talk about what it is to play these tough matches, and how small those margins are,’’ he said. “But it’s not until you experience some of the heartbreak that goes with [losing] that maybe you pay a little more attention.’’
The idea of scaling back its ambitions did not sit well with a prideful, hardworking team, particularly in a season when the NCAA Final Four will be held at Target Center.
“We learned a lot about ourselves that weekend, and what we needed to do to improve,’’ Hart said. “I wouldn’t say it was a wakeup call. But it helped us realize we needed to push harder in practice and push each other to get better every day.’’
Since then, the Gophers have dropped only one set in eight matches. Friday’s victory was their fourth against a Big Ten opponent ranked in the top seven in the nation.
They prevailed in a tight first set with six kills by Pittman, plus three aces from Seliger-Swenson. In the second, the Illini (15-3, 4-3) kept it close until late, when the Gophers broke a 15-15 tie with an 8-1 surge powered by five Hart kills. They repelled another late challenge in the third.
“It wasn’t the cleanest performance,’’ Seliger-Swenson said. “But we’ve improved in a lot of areas. It’s really cool to see that we’re still going up, getting better every day.’’