OMAHA – He always kept the picture small, even as the stage grew bigger and brighter. If the Gophers were to make progress this season, coach Hugh McCutcheon believed, it would happen through the accumulation of tiny, daily steps — and peering too far into the future would be an unhelpful distraction.
Thursday, the Gophers allowed themselves to take the wide view. They never intended their record-setting season to be an end in itself. Their mission was to retool their program for the long haul, and they already were looking beyond their 3-1 loss to Texas in the NCAA semifinal toward what lies ahead.
Daly Santana, one of the team’s two seniors, shed no tears in the last postmatch news conference of her Gophers career. She and McCutcheon reflected pride and optimism after a 30-5 campaign that saw their team win the second Big Ten championship in school history and advance to a fourth Final Four.
“I’m extremely proud of this group,” said Santana, who finished her four-year run with 1,644 kills and 1,280 digs. “I think we did such a good job changing the culture of Minnesota volleyball. And that’s something that is really hard to do.
“That was one of our goals. I think we did it, and I think we had an amazing season.”
Santana is the only one of the Gophers’ regulars who has completed her eligibility. The core group that will return next season includes all-America middle blockers Paige and Hannah Tapp; setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the Big Ten freshman of the year and a second-team all-American; and major contributors such as middle blocker Molly Lohman, outside hitter Sarah Wilhite and libero Dalianliz Rosado.
This season, the Gophers pledged to give maximum effort, constantly seek improvement and remain dedicated to one another. McCutcheon said because of that commitment, the program “now has a culture that’s real, that stands for something.” The rigors of the Big Ten schedule and a long postseason run also helped the Gophers hone their ability to thrive under pressure, an important step forward for a young roster.
“That doesn’t happen overnight,” Paige Tapp said. “Every single person on this team was ready to work hard every single day. That’s what we’ve done for the past year, and it’s definitely paid off.”
A school-record 15-match win streak in Big Ten play — and a 15-0 record at home — brought attention to the program.
McCutcheon said he is grateful to coach in a state “where volleyball matters” and lauded the supporters who traveled en masse to the NCAA regional and Final Four. Average attendance at the Sports Pavilion was 4,172 this season, fourth-best in the U.S.
In his fourth season, McCutcheon coached at a Final Four for the first time and was deeply impressed. The Gophers walked down a red carpet to enter Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, through a gantlet of cameras and cheering fans, before the semifinal. The crowd for Thursday’s matches was announced at 17,551 — an NCAA record — and the semifinals and finals were televised on ESPN2.
The quality of the event and the expanding parity in the sport, McCutcheon said, will help volleyball continue to grow. In the smaller picture, he expects the Gophers’ Final Four experience will help them do the same.
“I think this group has laid a wonderful foundation,” he said. “You hope from this, we can continue to build the program into the future.
“It’s a very special group, this 2015 team. I’m very proud of all their accomplishments, and we’ll learn from [the semifinal match] and move on.’’