– Ask Daly Santana and Dalianliz Rosado to describe each other, and each of the Gophers immediately begins with the same word. The first adjective they choose is “competitive,” which explains their distaste for each other when they stood on opposite sides of the volleyball net.

While they were playing for their school teams in their native Puerto Rico, two fierce little girls not yet 10 years old, they viewed each other as mortal enemies. “We spent four or five years hating each other,” Santana said Thursday, laughing at the memory. “We didn’t know each other at all. Then we started playing together on the national team, and we connected.”

The Gophers often credit their team unity for lifting them to a 28-4 season, which continues Friday against Illinois in the third round of the NCAA tournament in Des Moines. Santana, a senior outside hitter, and Rosado, a sophomore libero, have set the tone. The one-time rivals now consider themselves sisters, whether they’re cooking rice and beans in their apartment or taking charge on the volleyball court.

Together, they have helped the Gophers to their first Big Ten championship since 2002, a school-record 15-match winning streak in league play and a No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the highest in school history.

“Our relationship is great,” said Rosado, who leads the Gophers with 491 digs and is second on the team with 91 assists and 20 service aces. “We’re like friends and sisters. We support each other on and off the court, and it’s been great to have someone from back home to help me.”

No one understands that better than Santana. When she came to Minnesota in 2012, she was only 17 years old, with no family to aid her in adapting to a cold-weather college where classes were conducted in her second language. Her Gophers family helped her thrive, and she has enjoyed returning the favor by assisting Rosado.

Paths cross again at U

The two grew up in nearby towns on their home island: Santana in Corozal, Rosado in Morovis. Once both made the Puerto Rican national team, they began spending a lot of time together and realized how much they had in common.

Santana was thrilled when she heard the Gophers were recruiting Rosado. She assured her friend that she would help her navigate an unfamiliar culture, in a program that had come to feel like home. “I didn’t have anyone from home to help me, and it would have been great,” Santana said. “I thought it would relieve a lot of stress.”

During Rosado’s freshman year, Santana translated coaches’ instructions and teammates’ jokes, and she eased Rosado’s transition to classwork in English. At their apartment — where their country’s flag hangs on the wall — they share the flavors of Puerto Rico. The two cook with spices sent from home, and they enjoy music, everything from pop to salsa to the lively Christmas carols played in Puerto Rico by bands that show up at people’s homes in the middle of the night.

On the court, Rosado has grown in her backcourt role, while Santana’s spectacular senior season earned her Big Ten player of the year honors. She is ranked 15th in the nation with 4.41 kills per set, and her 4.98 points per set ranks 19th in the country. Her 39 kills against Louisville on Sept. 4 is the most by any Division I player this season.

“It’s been quite a journey for her,” coach Hugh McCutcheon said of Santana. “She was pretty good at a couple of things when she got here, and she’s really good at a lot of things now. She’s become quite a complete volleyball player. And the maturity and character she’s developed have helped her be the leader she’s become on the court.”

Their own players

Santana said Rosado is a fiery, determined player, one who understands what the Gophers need from her and is willing to push herself as hard as necessary. Rosado described Santana as committed and tough, a leader who “owns her role” on the team.

Their goal Friday is to use those qualities to keep their partnership going for another day, and perhaps another week. Victories Friday and Saturday would put the Gophers in the Final Four for the first time since 2009. Santana’s time with the Gophers will either end with the team’s next loss, or with the program’s first national title; when Rosado was asked what it will be like for her to continue without her friend, Santana saw a sadness cross her face and urged her not to cry.

Neither one wants to think about that. Even when that tearful day comes, they know their separation won’t diminish their sisterhood.

“It’s going to be pretty hard,” Rosado said. “But I know she’s going to call me, and she’s going to visit. I’ll miss her a lot. But I know she’s always going to be there for me.”