The Gophers’ record this season includes a pair of losses, in back-to-back matches during the first three weeks of the volleyball schedule.
Those 3-0 losses, to Florida State and Texas, were lessons. They immediately exposed the Gophers’ flaws, allowing them to address problems well before the start of the Big Ten season. Their ability to make quick fixes has kept them in the win column ever since, with five consecutive victories heading into Friday’s Big Ten opener against Indiana at Maturi Pavilion.
The No. 7 Gophers (6-2) have dropped only one set — to No. 1 Stanford, at Penn State — over those five matches. They’ve made improvements to their defense, serving, receiving, passing and communication, finding their rhythm in time for an opening Big Ten weekend.
“You get the lessons learned, and you move on,” coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “You have to learn some lessons quick. And I feel like we’ve learned some things that are going to help us down the stretch.”
After having trouble with their blocking early, the Gophers have made huge strides. They recorded 21 blocks in their first four matches; in the four matches since, they have 41. Junior Regan Pittman is averaging a team-high 1.4 blocks per set.
Outside hitter Alexis Hart said the Gophers have been more disciplined on the block, strengthening the overall defense. They have become better at moving to the right spot at the right time, allowing the back-row defenders a clear view so they can dig more balls.
“When people are flying around, it’s tough to know what spaces are going to be created and what spaces you need to defend,” McCutcheon explained. “I think our back-row defenders are also playing with more discipline. They’re more inclined to be in better spots before the contact and doing all the things we want to give them a good chance to dig it.”
A few players have been especially impressive of late, McCutcheon said, mentioning Pittman, libero CC McGraw and freshman defensive specialist Rachel Kilkelly.
New setter Kylie Miller has flourished as well, leading the nation in assists per set (12.08).
“Kylie is a great setter,” said Hart, whose 83 kills rank second on the team. “She’s doing an amazing job of balancing out the offense.”
Of all the assets the Gophers will need during the Big Ten season, McCutcheon said consistency will be critical. Six league teams are ranked in the top 20 this week, including No. 3 Nebraska and No. 5 Penn State.
Losing matches during a challenging nonconference schedule is fine with McCutcheon, as long as the Gophers absorb the lessons.
“The main thing is the idea of learning things early, so that we’re not all of a sudden in November and trying to figure things out,” he said. “Knowing what we have coming with our conference schedule, the idea of just trying to kind of dance around that doesn’t make much sense.’’