The Gophers played that goofy spring volleyball schedule earlier this year. No fans other than family were allowed for home matches at Maturi Pavilion. The local media also stayed away, at least in my case.
The 20-match season ended on April 18 with a loss to Pittsburgh in the round of 16. The match was in Omaha, where the NCAA held its limited-field tournament (32 teams) to crown underdog Kentucky as its 2020 champion.
That led to a quick turnaround for all. The Gophers started an amazingly tough nonconference schedule on Aug. 27 vs. Baylor in Madison, Wis. (of all places). Baylor was one of five teams rated in the top 15 that Hugh McCutcheon's club took on among eight nonconference foes.
And then came the Big Ten, always a grueling test, but perhaps better than ever with the rise of a few previous second-division programs and senior stars enjoying a fifth year due to the NCAA's pandemic freebie.
Fortunately for the Gophers, hitter Stephanie Samedy was among those deciding to take advantage. The importance of her presence came fully into view late on Sunday afternoon.
The opponent was Ohio State, rated No. 6 nationally entering the weekend. The Buckeyes' first stop was Friday in Madison, where they lost in four sets to No. 3 Wisconsin. Meantime, in the Pavilion, the No. 12 Gophers were getting swept 3-0 by No. 14 Penn State.
Maybe it was the Penn State sweep. Maybe it was the crowd watching behind masks. Whatever, the 5,009 attendees (announced) didn't seem as worked up as when I was last in their company in the fall of 2019.
The Gophers could have used some rowdy support when the first set was tied at 20-20. Instead, Ohio State ran off five of the next seven points for a 25-22 win in comparative quiet.
The Buckeyes seemed to be much better organized with the playmaking of setter Mac Podraza. She happens to be the daughter of Chris Schaefer, a Gophers All-America from the late 1980s. As recently as this summer, Chris was named to the M Club Hall of Fame, but now she was here with the Buckeyes delegation.
McCutcheon, in season 10 as Gophers coach, overheard a comment on the crowd's quiet start and said: "Our fans are out of practice. We didn't have a season last fall and we didn't let fans in the building in the spring."
Here's the good news: The Gophers revived after that low-energy first set, and so did the Pavilion faithful with its decibels.
"We needed to regroup," said CC McGraw, the senior defensive specialist. "Our execution was off in the first set. Ohio State is a very good team, but we had to make them earn it."
The Gophers did that and more: They avoided a weekend sweep at home by winning the last three sets, all by 25-21. All were closer than that — the Buckeyes having a chance late in all three, and then the Gophers (12-6, 7-3 Big Ten) making the clutch plays.
There had to be a half-dozen kill shots in the last two sets that big-hitting Buckeyes were certain would turn into points, and McGraw dug them out and kept the point in play.
"They have very powerful hitters," McGraw said. "You hope to keep the play alive."
Once alive, there was always the chance Samedy was going to wind up with a swing. It was suggested to McGraw that, after Samedy ended the third set by unleashing the hammer, she had the look of an athlete possessed by the idea that there wouldn't be a decisive fifth set.
McGraw laughed slightly and said: "She went off in the fourth set. We love her. She's an amazing player."
Podraza has a very sneaky left hand for drop shots when near the net and used that to give Ohio State (16-4, 6-4) a 17-16 lead in that fourth. Samedy immediately responded with two hammers to put the Gophers in front.
Katie Myers and Shea Rubright came up big defensively at the net, and Airi Miyabe finished it with her 16thkill of the match. The senior has had to take a bigger roll with Taylor Landfair, an outstanding sophomore hitter, missing games because of an injury.
Samedy finished with 22 kills, her eighth match with more than 20 this season and the 22ndof her career. Samedy moved to sixth on the Gophers' all-time list with 1,790 kills.
The fourth position as a Gophers volleyball killer belongs to Chris Schaefer (1986-89) with 1,896, who was rooting for the other talented outfit Sunday.