The Gophers were playing in their second NCAA volleyball tournament in 1993. They won a couple of matches, and then were hosting a regional at Williams Arena.
These were the days when a team had to be serving to win a point, and sets were played to 15. The Gophers and Notre Dame were in a fifth set, when Sue Jackson — in her last collegiate match — ran off the elevated court in an attempt to keep the ball and her team alive.
Notre Dame ended up winning 15-13, and women’s volleyball at the university returned to its modest interest from the Twin Cities sporting public.
The Gophers made a much stronger financial commitment to volleyball when women’s athletic director Chris Voelz hired Mike Hebert away from Illinois in 1996.
This might come off as less than proper gender sensitivity, but I’ve been announcing for two decades that volleyball at this level was the most entertaining and athletically impressive of all women’s sports.
I’m not talking about the beach variety — but the game the Gophers will be playing Thursday at 6 p.m. in the national semifinals against perennial power and towering Stanford in Columbus, Ohio.
While making the volleyball endorsement, it must be admitted that a couple of visits per season to the Sports Pavilion allowed me to maintain novice status when it came to volleyball intricacies.
Strategy? Basically, I just saw the players as trying to keep the ball alive until one of the tall ladies could smash it.
Setter? I saw her out there trying to place the ball in the general direction and high enough for one of her hitters to drill it.
Then, I went to a Big Ten match in the fall of 2015. I saw this slim, fairly tall freshman named Samantha Seliger-Swenson operate as the Gophers’ setter, and it was a slap upside the head that said:
“Hey, there’s a method to this madness. This kid’s a quarterback, and the best one on campus.’’
Walt Weaver, the longtime coach at Apple Valley and briefly at Lakeville North, has been a leading booster for this state’s volleyball for decades. Vicki Seliger, Sam’s mother, is the coach at Hopkins and a friend of Walt’s.
“I’ve known Sam since she was born,’’ Weaver said. “Certainly, it’s an advantage that she grew up with coaches, but there is also an instinct with Sam that eclipses anything we’ve seen previously from a setter coming out of our Minnesota junior programs.
“Sam does things that are very unusual for a setter. There are a number of times the fast set to [Sarah] Wilhite comes from the 12-foot line, and you just don’t see that.
“The quick sets 4 inches, 6 inches above the net — Tempo One sets, we call them — that the Gophers use to avoid the block … her read and touch on those is tremendous.’’
The losing coaches always mention the fast pace at which the Gophers play, their “transition’’ game.
Apparently, that means getting the ball moving from defense to offense quicker than most teams — a dig, a pass, a quick set, and then an attack, generally from seniors Wilhite, Hannah Tapp or Paige Tapp, or freshman Alexis Hart, the Gophers’ next star.
“You have to understand the hitters are committed to when and where those sets will be there,’’ Weaver said. “The hitters are all running routes, like football receivers, in anticipation of a set.
“Think of what a setter at this level is going through: She has to read the defense, she has to control the pass, she has to decide which teammate she wants making this strike, and give her a set exactly where she wants it.
“And, she has to do all of that in about one second.’’
Seliger-Swenson and the Gophers are required to play with suddenness because they aren’t ultra-tall or thick of frame. Against Stanford, they will face 6-3 blocker Inky Ajanaku, the national freshman of the year in 6-6 Kathryn Plummer and 6-8 junior Merete Lutz.
Ajanaku, Plummer, Seliger-Swenson and Wilhite were all named to the 14-player, first-team All-America team Wednesday.
“Stanford beat the Gophers in four sets early in the season,’’ Weaver said. “This is as tough of a challenge as Sam, Sarah and the Gophers could face.
“Can they play fast enough to beat that size, to beat the Stanford block? It’s going to be great to watch.’’
Discovering Seliger-Swenson and the real art of quarterbacking a volleyball team made the appreciation much greater.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org