Gregory Gym in Austin, Texas, roared on a Friday night earlier this month with over 4,000 fans on their feet during player introductions that sounded more like a WWE main event than a volleyball match.
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon wore a pregame grin in appreciation for the intense atmosphere. This is exactly the type of feature nonconference matchup that he hopes will prepare his team for the upcoming Big Ten grind.
The then-No. 5 Texas Longhorns thought they had an advantage that night, even against the nation’s No. 1 team.
But they never faced Stephanie Samedy.
After watching their team lose the first set, the raucous crowd grew faint. ESPN analyst Nell Fortner was already drooling over the play of Samedy, the Gophers freshman opposite hitter from Clermont, Fla.
“She’s playing well beyond her years,” Fortner beamed on the telecast. “Samedy is having her way with the Longhorns.”
After a 22-kill performance in Minnesota’s four-set victory at Texas, the 6-2 Samedy earned her second consecutive tournament MVP award and was named ESPNW’s national player of the week.
The accolades are coming so fast that McCutcheon is trying hard to downplay how important one player is to his young team’s chances of making a run at the Big Ten title and third consecutive Final Four trip this year.
That conference quest starts Friday and Sunday at home, against Michigan and Michigan State, respectively. The Gophers bring an 11-0 record into Big Ten play along with their No. 1 national ranking.
“We knew she was good, so that’s not a surprise,” McCutcheon said. “It’s not about any one. I get it — Steph’s had a good couple weekends. But the whole team was in it. It works both ways. The fact that she’s there makes it easier for everybody. The fact that everybody is [contributing] makes it easier for her.”
Last year’s NCAA player of the year, Sarah Wilhite, graduated. In comes Samedy to take her place as the Gophers’ go-to offensive weapon, while leading the Big Ten in kills per set with 4.55. That also leads all Division I freshman and ranks 20th nationally.
How was the transition this easy?
The talent was there. She picked up co-MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America high school game last December. McCutcheon targeted Samedy as a potential six-rotation player, meaning she can play every position on the floor and attacks from the front and back rows.
Samedy does it all: hit, set, block and serve.
She’s the first Gopher to play opposite hitter and lead the team in kills since Katherine Harms earned All-America honors in 2012.
“She jumped in right away,” All-America setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson said. “We built a lot of trust in each other, because offense is a lot about timing. So we worked on that quite a bit. Now we’ve kind of gotten the hang of it and she’s been doing great. I trust going to her in big moments. She’s been really steady, someone we can rely on.”
As a top-5 national recruit and member of the U.S. junior national team, Samedy had her pick of elite programs to play for. Her list of finalists included Penn State, Nebraska, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
But she was drawn to the Gophers because of the U’s combination of solid academics and coaching. She felt McCutcheon, a former Olympic coach, and his staff could prepare her to achieve her dream of one day playing in the Olympics.
“School is really important to me,” Samedy said. “Also, the volleyball here, the way Hugh and the whole coaching staff teaches is really going to benefit me down the road if I want to play professionally.”
Samedy’s high school coach Mayra Cuebas said her former star player’s impact is also still being seen in the Lake County area and her hometown of Clermont, 22 miles west of Orlando.
There were only a couple players in Clermont competing in club volleyball before Samedy made Team USA and won Florida Gatorade Player of the Year awards her final two seasons.
“I heard parents say, ‘I want to put my daughter in club because I saw how Stephanie improved her game so quickly in club.’ ” Cuebas said. “She set an example. She put our school [East Ridge] and the sport on the map for us.”
Cuebas’ daughter and starting setter, Naomi, committed to Texas’ Class of 2020. Samedy’s high school team cheers for the Longhorns, but those players were excited to see Samedy star in Austin.
Samedy chose volleyball over basketball in the seventh grade and set high goals. But with her name now — a month into her first season — being mentioned as not only one of the country’s top freshmen, but as one of the top players overall, it’s clear her ascension has been faster than one of her powerful swings at the net.
“I could see I could get further along with volleyball. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I’m the type of person that if I start something, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. So I just wanted to go all the way.”