There has not been a home­stand in the history of Gophers athletics to compare with what the volleyball team began on Friday night at the Sports Pavilion. You might want to argue the premise with a mention of hockey, but that doesn't count.

There are 60 men's programs and 36 women's programs in Division I hockey. There are 300 women's volleyball programs, and many of the best are in the Big Ten. Thus, this homestand that the Gophers enter rated No. 2 in the nation:

Friday: Michigan State (ranked 13th). Sunday: Michigan (18th). Thanksgiving eve: Nebraska (No. 1). Next Saturday: Wisconsin (No. 3).

"Part of the reason you want to be Gopher is the challenge of playing a very tough schedule," Sarah Wilhite said.

That's certainly something you will never hear from a Gophers football or men's basketball player, not unless they have fingers crossed behind their backs.

Wilhite is a senior outside hitter and reigning Big Ten player of the week, an award she has claimed three times this season.

She almost wound up on another side of this rivalry, giving a verbal commitment to Wisconsin on Aug. 30, 2011, at the start of her senior year at Eden Prairie. The Gophers ratcheted up interest as the 6-1 Wilhite hammered kills that fall. On Nov. 20, Wilhite signed with the Gophers. If this created hard feelings in Badgertown, those have dissipated.

"Wisconsin has a new coaching staff and a great team," Wilhite said. "The Badgers are our No. 1 rival, although I have nothing to do with that. It's the whole Border Battle thing."

Wilhite was quick to add: "We have a lot of work to do before worrying about the Badgers. Michigan State beat us in October, so we're going to need our best game right away on this homestand."

There was no hyperbole in this. The Gophers wound up going to a fifth set, and twice the Spartans had match point. Each time, freshman Alexis Hart, the Gophers' star in waiting, unloaded a kill that kept the Gophers alive.

The last of those tied the match at 16-16. The Gophers followed with two points for an 18-16 set and the victory.

Wilhite had joined a team in 2013 that had seniors Tori Dixon and Ashley Wittman and sophomore Daly Santana. She also was arriving with the Tapp twins, Hannah and Paige. That was a lot of depth.

"We had a great team in '13," Wilhite said. "I got to play some, but I had to get much better to be a player that my teammates could count on. I had to change everything — get stronger and faster, develop a variety of shots."

She smiled and said: "I came here with one shot — hammer it across the court. That doesn't work in the Big Ten. You have to read the defense. A change of pace is important."

The Gophers were short on experience in 2014. That doesn't work in the Big Ten, either. Wilhite was second on the team in kills as a sophomore, but the team missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.

It was a snag, not a slump.

Santana was a senior, Wilhite and the Tapp twins were juniors, Samantha Seliger-Swenson was outstanding as a freshman setter, and the 2015 Gophers made it to the Final Four before losing to Texas.

Now, it's sort of the all-in, this is a chance to win it, but with this schedule … even a senior can't get hung up on those dreams.

"Everyone says it, but it's true: Four years go so fast," Wilhite said.

Consider the effort put in to form a contending team.

This was early Wednesday afternoon. The Gophers would have a meeting and watch tape of Michigan State for a half-hour. And then they would practice for 2½ hours.

There are 18 players on the roster. It takes 12 to emulate a match. Not a lot of down time in a volleyball practice.

"There isn't, although the coaches are smart about it," Wilhite said. "If you've had a tough weekend on the court, they are going to make sure you have time to recover."

All weekends, these two matches per week with many back-to-backs, are tough in the Big Ten. It's hard to fathom many stretches have been tougher than the one the Gophers started Friday.

"One at a time," coach Hugh McCutcheon said.

The first was tremendous.