After returning to the NCAA volleyball Final Four last December, the Gophers convened for a spring season that never happened.
But coach Hugh McCutcheon couldn’t have asked for a better start for his newcomers — including the nation’s No. 1- and No. 5-ranked recruits — in the short time they were on campus.
Talent matters. Cohesiveness matters just as much. Maybe more at this time of the year.
“One of the things I liked about the spring was the way the group was working and the way they were interacting,” McCutcheon said. “It felt like one of the most connected groups we’ve had here.”
Entering his ninth season at Minnesota, McCutcheon spent eight weeks watching the new players connect with returnees from the Final Four squad, including All-Americas Regan Pittman and Stephanie Samedy.
Then, just like that, the excitement the Gophers had built for their spring season dissipated, when the coronavirus pandemic led to a cancellation of all activities.
Early enrollees in McCutcheon’s recruiting class were top-ranked recruit Taylor Landfair from suburban Chicago and Melani Shaffmaster from Newcastle, Ind.
Jenna Wenaas from Frisco, Texas — the nation’s fifth-ranked high school senior — and Cami Appiani from San Diego are still finishing up their senior years of high school.
“This team really helped Melani and I get comfortable in the new environment we were put into,” Landfair said. “Even though it was a short period of time, I felt like it was beneficial. Because now I already know what I need to be working on.”
As an athletic, 6-4 outside hitter, Landfair possesses the length and power to crush the ball at the net, but she’s also dedicated to improving her passing and overall hitting technique.
“This feel she has for volleyball and combining that with her physical talents and abilities,” McCutcheon said, “it was a pretty enticing opportunity to work with an athlete like that. They don’t come around very often.”
Shaffmaster is a 6-3 setter who committed to the U as a high school freshman All-America. McCutcheon called her a “unique talent,” because her size allows her to provide a blocking presence to go along with her passing prowess.
The hardest worker in the class is arguably Wenaas, who went from an under-the-radar prospect to being ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com last year. She “hits a heavy ball with a lot of range,” McCutcheon said.
The biggest sleeper of the class could be Appiani. She was a senior leader for Torrey Pines, the top-ranked girls high school team in California and No. 2 nationally. Her strength beyond defense is her volleyball IQ and serving.
Even without Wenaas and Appiani on campus yet, Landfair says the entire incoming class already is a close-knit group. They have bonded well through constant group chats.
“I feel like we’re going to be really successful in the long run,” Landfair said. “I definitely like staying in contact with them.”
McCutcheon has a feeling this could be a special team once it comes together — and so do his players.
“They are all great players,” Appiani said. “I can’t wait to see how that’s going to elevate my game. Just being among these other great players in my class especially is going to push me to get better.”