PITTSBURGH – In cooking, as in life, it takes time to create something memorable. Taylor Morgan’s mother, Jennifer Bingle, reminded her of that when the Gophers volleyball team lost two of its first three matches.
“She says it’s like soup,’’ Morgan said. “Some people are the beans. Some are the spices. You need every one to make it really good, and when one isn’t there, you taste it, and you know it ain’t right. But we just kept stirring it together.’’
Through the course of a challenging season, the Gophers added a dash of creativity, a willingness to experiment and a couple of fresh ingredients to their mix. That recipe produced a 27-5 record and a place in the Final Four, where the seventh-seeded Gophers will play No. 3 seed Stanford in Thursday’s semifinals at PPG Paints Arena.
There were a few kitchen fires to put out along the way. A roster trimmed by offseason transfers and an injury to setter Kylie Miller forced the Gophers to be resilient. Eventually, each of the 15 players understood their roles and embraced their individual duties, which built a trust and devotion that carried them through the rough patches.
Though Morgan said getting to the Final Four “tastes pretty good,’’ the Gophers believe they haven’t reached peak flavor. Having passed so many tests already, they feel well-prepared to pursue their first NCAA title.
“We were dealing with a lot of adversity,’’ libero CC McGraw said. “In those times, when a lot of teams would have probably faded away and been like, ‘This is too difficult,’ we embraced that. We came together.
“It wasn’t easy. It was a grind. But we’re benefiting from that, and I think it shows.’’
The Gophers’ sixth Final Four appearance comes a year after a bitter disappointment. Last season, with fans counting on them to reach the Final Four at Target Center, they were upset at home by Oregon in the regional semifinals.
Middle blocker Regan Pittman said the Gophers moved on quickly, a trait that would serve them well in the coming months.
“All the ups and downs we went through prepared us well. I’m just really proud of this team. And we know our best is yet to come.”
The team was confronted with unexpected changes over the winter, when six players left the program.
Though that left the Gophers with a relatively small roster, Pittman said it also solidified the group. If the team was to achieve anything this season, everyone would have to be on board.
“We were like, ‘Listen, this is our team,’ ’’ she recalled. “All 15 of us have to do whatever we have to do to win. We had to figure things out, and I think that just bonded us all together.’’
It did not happen instantly. Through a 1-2 start, which included 3-0 road losses to Florida State and Texas, the Gophers were sorting out their roles and responsibilities.
Morgan said the Gophers’ hitters still were developing chemistry with Miller, their new setter, who had transferred from UCLA to play her final college season in Minnesota. They also were learning that the entire group would have to be willing to lead in some way.
“We were like, ‘OK, how are we going to do this? Who’s going to take charge?’ ’’ said Morgan, a fifth-year senior. “We just decided we were all going to take charge. If everyone just does their job, good things will happen.’’
That became clear during the third weekend of the season. At the Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge in State College, Pa., the Gophers swept 10th-ranked Oregon — avenging the wrenching NCAA tournament loss — and defeated No. 1 Stanford 3-1, knocking off the Cardinal for the first time in program history.
At that point, Morgan and Pittman saw signs that the Gophers had Final Four potential. The team had fearlessness and grit, and they connected with each other in a way Morgan had never seen.
They needed all those qualities when Miller was sidelined by a concussion at the start of the Big Ten schedule. For 13 matches in the heart of the season, the Gophers did not know from week to week whether their top setter would be able to play. Other injuries left the Gophers without two of their starters in three Big Ten matches.
Rather than buckling under the uncertainty, they learned to toggle back and forth between two offensive schemes, and several players — including setters Bayley McMenimen and Tamara Dolonga, and outside hitter Airi Miyabe — stepped up with strong performances.
“Why would you panic?’’ Pittman said. “We had confidence that other players would come in and do their jobs. Our attitude was, ‘Just do what you need to do to win this game.’ ’’
Coach Hugh McCutcheon said the unpredictability forced the Gophers to restrict their focus to the match at hand, sharpening the point-to-point mind-set the sport requires.
Players also had to expand their roles, and approach each day ready to do whatever was required.
That had a cumulative effect, as the Gophers cleared hurdle after hurdle. Their second-round match Dec. 7 against Creighton proved how resilient they have become, as they fought off two match points and won in five sets.
“As we were going, we learned we could adapt,’’ outside hitter Alexis Hart said. “That made us realize that our team was able to adapt to anything.’’
Through much of the season, Pittman said, it felt like the Gophers were holding themselves together with Band-Aids. They now feel firmly stitched, entering Thursday’s NCAA semifinal on a seven-match win streak.
Or, to use Morgan’s analogy, the soup is ready to be served.
“All the ups and downs we went through prepared us well,’’ she said. “I’m just really proud of this team. And we know our best is yet to come.’’