From the time she was a kid, Samantha Seliger-Swenson knew the value of teamwork. The Gophers freshman spent much of her childhood in the gym, watching the players guided by her mother — a high school and club volleyball coach — becoming stronger by supporting each other.
Those days laid much of the foundation for an outstanding volleyball career at Hopkins High School and a substantial role in her first season at the U. But after a family tragedy nearly nine years ago, Seliger-Swenson gained a deeper understanding of the power generated by pulling together. When her aunt, Teri Lee, was murdered by a former boyfriend, the Seliger-Swenson family brought Lee's four orphaned children into their home, while their friends, neighbors and the volleyball community lent a hand.
The Hopkins team coached by Vicki Seliger- Swenson contacted the producers of TV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which expanded and remodeled the family's Minnetonka house. Vicki joined with state legislators to create new laws to protect victims of domestic violence. And Samantha, who was 9 years old when her family doubled in size, took note of how that selflessness enriched everyone involved.
"It really gave me a great sense of gratitude, seeing how people were willing to support us and be there for us," she said. "It changed my perspective.
"My cousins had gone through so much. I wanted to be a rock for them. And my parents have been so strong for all of us, always giving their best for our whole family. What I learned from them translates to the court. You want to do your best for your teammates all the time, supporting them and picking each other up."
An instant starter
That's only one facet of what Seliger-Swenson brings to the Gophers. The setter has started all four matches this season and has a team-high 159 assists; Monday, she was named Big Ten setter and rookie of the week for her performance in last week's victories over Louisville and No. 18 North Carolina.
After finishing 19-12 last season, the Gophers are unranked this fall, an unfamiliar position for a program accustomed to national accolades and NCAA tournament appearances. Coach Hugh McCutcheon has stressed that team unity will be essential to regaining that status. Having seen what solidarity can do for a wounded family, Seliger-Swenson is helping set the same tone for her new team.
"Some freshmen are ready to hit the road running, and others take awhile to get going," McCutcheon said. "It seems like Sam is very comfortable with her role. We're lucky to have her."
Seliger-Swenson, 18, is adapting smoothly to the college game. She got an early start, graduating from Hopkins last December and joining the Gophers in January. That enabled her to get used to the speed and power of Division I volleyball — and the rigor of university classwork — before the season began this fall.
It also gave Seliger-Swenson a head start on bonding with her teammates, through offseason workouts and a spring-break trip to train and scrimmage in Japan. With their assistance, she said, she has gotten faster and stronger, and her technique is improving through McCutcheon's instruction.
"Getting her here early was really a big advantage for her, and for us," McCutcheon said. "I know it was challenging for her, but she's very much integrated into our program."
Vicki Seliger-Swenson said her daughter always had a volleyball in her hand, from the time she was a baby riding around in the ball cart while her mom coached at Hopkins. At age 5, she would play against the gym wall for hours; before long, she was sneaking into the ninth-grade team practices, performing drills alongside the big girls.
Vicki and her husband, Erik — a teacher and assistant football coach at Hopkins — allowed Samantha to begin playing club volleyball in fourth grade. Her obsession with the game caused other parents to wonder whether she would burn out, but her folks weren't concerned.
"We were careful as parents, and we watched for that," Vicki said. "But if we took a day off from practice, she was the one saying, 'Can we go to the gym for a little while?' The kid just had it in her heart. And as parents, it was our job to love and support that."
When Vicki's sister was killed in 2006, Samantha extended that same encouragement to her cousins, whose father had died in a car accident five years earlier. She and her baby sisters, Stella and Olivia, were joined by Teri Lee's daughters — Taylor, 12, and Tara, 6 — and sons Tyler, 10, and Trevor, 8. Vicki gave birth to another daughter, Eva, in 2007.
Team player in a team sport
Vicki Seliger-Swenson said Samantha's empathy, faith and compassion comforted her new siblings. Her sport and its people did the same for her. In the gym, Samantha was surrounded by caring teammates in a positive atmosphere, playing a game that lifted her spirits.
Coached by her mother, Samantha developed into a prep superstar. A three-time All-America, she was Minnesota's Miss Volleyball in 2014 and was ranked the No. 8 recruit in the nation after setting state records for season assists (1,327) and career aces (601). Seliger-Swenson said she knew "instantly" that she wanted to play for the Gophers, where her close-knit family — including her four younger sisters, who all play volleyball — can attend her games.
As a setter, it's Seliger-Swenson's job to take charge on the court. She has relished that role despite her youth, and she is eager to lead the effort required to build the Gophers back into a nationally ranked program. Firsthand experience has taught her that with many hands sharing the task, anything is possible, and everything is sweeter.
"That's something we've talked about in our gym recently, about supporting and lifting each other up," she said. "With this program, our strength is in our unity.
"The thing that attracted me to volleyball is it's a great team sport. You have to rely on your teammates, and everyone has to be involved. I think there's a challenge there for us. And we're all individually and collectively ready to accept it.''