The much-honored Stephanie Samedy played her final match at Maturi Pavilion on Saturday night. So did Airi Miyabe, and the smile on her face had to take the prize in the Gophers postgame locker room.
Samedy arrived in the summer of 2017 as the No. 5-rated recruit in the country. She was a first-team All-America as a freshman, and has gone from there — already a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and expected to become a four-time first-team All-America when the announcement is made on Dec. 15.
Miyabe was a honored youth player in Japan, yet she started her U.S. college career at Southern Idaho, a junior college. She led that team to a national JUCO title in 2018, came to Minnesota and played sparingly as an outside hitter.
She still was waiting for playing time at the start of this season, then had 14 kills on 35 attacks in a Sept. 10 match against Stanford in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge match in Eugene, Ore.
Taylor Landfair, All-Big Ten as a freshman last spring, has had a season-long injury. That helped create playing time for Miyabi, although it soon became more of a case of her excellent play.
The opponent again was Stanford on Saturday, and for the first time in an NCAA tournament, the Gophers defeated the Cardinal ... and decisively: 25-20, 25-18, 25-17.
And here was the amazing part: Samedy got by with just being solid, because the other hitters, Miyabe and sophomore Jenna Wenaas, were tremendous.
The Stanford defense started off very Samedy conscious, but soon discovered that wasn't going to work, as Wenaas and Miyabe combined to go 11-for-21 on attacks in the first set.
Miyabe and Wenaas kept making plays, and then sweep was over, Samedy was 16 for 37 on attacks, Wenaas 14 for 29 and Miyabe 11 for 22. They did this with nine errors total.
The Stanford hitters started well, then wound up sending repeated returns wide and long. The Cardinal had a hitting percentage of .028 in the second set and .164 for the match. The Gophers' number was .339, which spells sweep.
There was a moment in the second set from Miyabe that produced a Pavilion roar rivaled only when Samedy soared for a smash later in the match.
Miyabe rescued the Gophers with a drop shot near the net, and when it was returned, she instantly fired away with a kill. Had to all take place within a four-second interval.
"We knew Airi was a very good volleyball player," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "Another of those players … low ego, high output."
The victory sends the Gophers to Madison, Wis. for a regional, first against Baylor and then perhaps a third chance (0-2 so far) at the Big Ten champion Badgers.
Asked about her last match in the Pavilion, Miyabe said: "I'm going to miss this place forever. It's kind of sad, but it ended with a win, and that's exciting."
Samedy didn't get a curtain call on this night, but her legacy is secure as an all-time great Gophers athlete. She wound up playing five seasons because of the pandemic freebie, and her two Big Ten Player of the Year awards came in the same calendar year of 2021.
McCutcheon was asked before the NCAAs about Samedy's long and spectacular career and said: "Stephanie's performance in particular for these two seasons has been remarkable … and I would say more so this fall. She made some wonderful improvements."
How does a fifth-year senior make sizable improvement?
"There's power in the details," McCutcheon said. "There are all these different things you have to do, especially when you're a six-rotation opposite, and you're out there all the time.
"You can't hide any weaknesses. People aren't shocked when she gets set anymore, so they're sending two blockers her way often, and you can't hit the same shots.
"You have to develop more things that you can do with the ball offensively — and you also have to block, you have to dig, you have to serve.
"As she is leaving us, it feels like she has become the complete package. I think if she had left in April, there probably still was a little meat on the bone."