OMAHA – Hugh McCutcheon understood exactly what he was asking of his players. The Gophers volleyball coach could not promise that their months of sweat and labor would carry them anywhere, much less to the Final Four.
After last season, though, they didn’t need any guarantees. Dismayed by a 19-12 record that kept them out of the NCAA tournament — and dropped them to eighth place in the Big Ten, their lowest finish in 16 years — the Gophers knew they had no hope of rising without taking that leap of faith.
“There was no way around it,” senior Daly Santana said. “We had to work harder if we wanted to achieve greater things.”
That simple truth set the Gophers on a path to Thursday’s NCAA semifinal match against Texas, the latest achievement in a landmark season. Santana and her teammates said they didn’t require any magic to win their first Big Ten championship since 2002 and reach the Final Four for the fourth time in program history.
They got there with a mix of traits that, taken together, turned a collection of talented players into one of the country’s most surprising teams. Their selflessness and genuine affection for each other led them to a deeper commitment to the program, and their trust in McCutcheon’s plan inspired the effort that has produced a 30-4 record.
In four NCAA tournament games, the Gophers have dropped only one set, playing with a remarkable confidence and chemistry that have blossomed over the past four months. Junior Hannah Tapp said the Gophers entered the season with no expectations, leaving them all the more fulfilled by what they have done so far.
“All those days, we were there, putting in the work,” she said. “And now, we’re reaping the benefits. To see us come so far is amazing. It’s almost unreal.”
Not to McCutcheon, who lauded his players for their faith.
“Maybe now, for future generations of Gophers, they know if you grind it, then good things happen,” said the coach, in his fourth season. “But these athletes? All they had was a lot of trust in the process, without really knowing what the result was going to be.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to this group. They took on a phenomenal load. And they’ve come out the other side with something pretty significant.”
Picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten, the Gophers compiled an 18-2 league record — the best in program history — and set a number of other school records on the way to their first Final Four appearance since 2009. They won 15 consecutive conference games, going undefeated from Sept. 30 until Nov. 21. They earned the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, their highest ever, and swept their first three tournament opponents for the first time.
The seeds for all of that were planted after the disappointment of last season. Following an 11-1 start, the Gophers lost 11 of their final 19 matches, ending a 15-year run of NCAA tournament appearances.
That was unacceptable to players like Santana — one of only two seniors on the roster — and Tapp. On a team trip to Japan last spring, they and their teammates worked to build the unity they considered the cornerstone to changing their fortunes.
Unable to constantly use their cell phones in Japan, McCutcheon said his players “went analog,” spending lots of time just talking. They continued to grow closer after they returned and began considering their ambitions for this season.
“Everyone is connected,” said freshman setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who graduated early from high school to get a head start on her rookie season. “We’re all working toward the common goal of getting better every day, with the hopes of winning. We all have that same vision, and that’s a really cool thing.”
McCutcheon said he had no timetable for getting the program back to the Final Four. He had been working toward a strong team culture, recruiting players on the basis of character as well as talent, and establishing the qualities he wanted them to reflect.
Two of his truisms set the tone for this season. Tapp said players embraced McCutcheon’s assertion that small changes made with great conviction can have a huge impact, and they made it a goal to improve a little each day. He also urged his players to “view greatness as a habit, not as a switch” to be turned on and off, a saying that helped the Gophers learn to remain calm and consistent in high-pressure situations.
Last season, the Gophers had trouble closing out matches. McCutcheon said this year, their resolve and resilience — particularly late in sets — became a defining characteristic. After losing their first two matches of the season, the Gophers have gone 30-2 and were undefeated at the Sports Pavilion.
“We’re always ready to battle,” Santana said. “We know in every match, we’re going to get into trouble at some point. It’s all about knowing how to respond.
“Every week, we’ve gotten better, since the beginning of the season. That’s the thing that gives us confidence. We know every time we step on the court, we can be better than the day before, or the game we just played. That’s a really good thing for us.”
Asked earlier this week about his team’s strengths, McCutcheon noted the list has gotten longer. By remaining committed to their principles and their plan, he said, they have assembled a body of work that gives them confidence against any opponent and in all situations.
The Gophers have made it clear they still are striving to improve, even in the Final Four. Even at this point, they said, the only magic they need is the kind they have created through their collective effort.
“Everyone in the group understood how much hard work needed to be put in for us to reach the goals we wanted,” Santana said. “All of us, together, made that decision to be the team we wanted to be this year. Everything just kind of fell into place.”