If Minnesota volleyball is on a campaign to prove it’s back, the Gophers are making all the right moves.
They continued their strong start to Big Ten play Wednesday, blanking Northwestern 3-0 two days after bouncing up to No. 16 in this week’s American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
After winning the first two sets 25-16 and 25-23 at the Sports Pavilion, the Gophers (10-3, 2-1 Big Ten) turned up the heat at the end of the third. With the score knotted at 20, the Gophers went on a 4-1 run capped by a back-to-back block and kill from Hannah Tapp to close out the 25-21 victory.
Nine players contributed to the victory in which the Gophers beat Northwestern (10-4, 2-1) in every major category. Minnesota posted a .973 serving percentage. And the Gophers never trailed by more than two points despite a scrappy Northwestern defense that kept them on their toes with clutch stops and long rallies.
These are all more signs that coach Hugh McCutcheon, now in his fourth season at Minnesota, has a team that could be a serious national competitor again after a down season a year ago saw the Gophers go only 9-12 in the Big Ten, perennially one of the country’s best leagues.
“It’s good to win, but I think we’ve been playing better volleyball than we did tonight,” McCutcheon said. “I thought defensively [Northwestern was] in good spots and made good adjustments, so I don’t think our offense was really grooving tonight.”
In other words, the standards have raised. The Gophers are not content.
Minnesota began Big Ten play by upsetting No. 12 Ohio State before dropping a match to No. 1 Penn State in five sets, breaking the Nittany Lions’ 43-set unbeaten streak in the process. Penn State is the defending NCAA champion.
Before that, the Gophers ripped off seven consecutive shutouts after losing their first two matches — to Texas A&M and Stanford — and then prevailing over Louisville in five sets.
Even on off-nights, Minnesota (10-3, 2-1 Big Ten) can execute with relative ease.
Why? Well, Minnesota added senior transfer Toni Alugbue and four high profile freshmen, including setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who already has been named the conference’s freshman of the week three times.
She had 36 assists, 12 digs and 2.5 points Wednesday.
But the real key to the resurgence might be a talented core that is stronger, more experienced and seems to have a greater killer instinct.
This year’s offense is rangier, more balanced and probably the deepest of McCutcheon’s tenure at Minnesota.
Sharpshooter Daly Santana (a game-high 15 kills and 11 digs), a senior from Puerto Rico, has gotten even hotter, leading the league in kills. Tapp (11 kills) is reaching balls she wasn’t a year ago. Her twin sister, Paige Tapp, was just named the league’s defensive player of the week, and has improved on both ends.
“We just have a lot of players that can put the ball down this year,” Santana said.
Players say the chemistry that is obvious on this squad began in the offseason, when the Gophers took a 10-day excursion to Japan in March. They trained with the country’s World University Games team, played tourists, ate octopus and sang karaoke.
The refreshed bonds, plus whatever happened in practice, had McCutcheon sounding optimistic in August, even though the Gophers started the year outside the Top 25.
More than anything, now, the players are sounding determined. And hungry after their first Big Ten home win, with the next big challenge coming Saturday when No. 9 Illinois comes to town.
“We hold ourselves to a high standard,” Hannah Tapp said.
“Because we want to become a team that has done some things that no other Gophers volleyball team has done.”