The Gophers volleyball team is as frustrating as it is fascinating. They embody the inconsistency of youth and its promise. But, at some point, you need some wins.
The No. 13 Gophers fell to No. 15 Penn State 25-14, 23-25, 25-20, 28-26 in front of an announced 5,312 fans at Maturi Pavilion on Saturday night. The Gophers fell to 6-6 overall, 2-2 in Big Ten play. That the six losses have all come against ranked opponents is losing meaning.
The Gophers are being tested and not passing.
Which isn't to say they aren't thrilling.
Mckenna Wucherer's cannonball swing and her newly arrived rocket serve. Taylor Landfair's varied attack — her tips and tosses and bombs. Melani Shaffmaster's heart and skill, tangoing around the court in her knee brace, calmly tossing out assists in the storm. Phoebe Awoleye's tracing and tracking on the middle block.
All were on display Saturday in four competitive sets, and it still wasn't enough.
"You have to walk towards it," coach Keegan Cook said. "Everyone wants to walk away from the film of this match, and wait as long as they can to watch it. You have to walk right towards it and make a plan for what you're going to do come Monday morning."
Penn State (10-3, 4-0) features a murderer's row of Big Ten transfers — outside hitter Jess Mruzik (Michigan), setter Mac Podraza (Ohio State) and middle blocker Taylor Trammell (Purdue). They were as lethal as advertised, especially Trammell, who hit .800 with 16 kills.
The first set was an utter debacle for the Gophers, and a fine example of the simmering displeasure of Cook. He is incapable of hiding his emotions on the sideline, even if it's subtle. A slight eye roll here, a tuck of the head there. On Saturday he called two timeouts and tossed away a challenge before his team had scored four points.
It was homecoming at the Pavilion, a night after the Gophers sold out the place for a sweep of Michigan. They came out in a daze. Their defense was invisible as the Nittany Lions hit .464 in the first, their offense was all too visible as they hit .161.
With the negative, though, comes the positive.
As the Gophers got their footing in the second set with relentless defensive coverage, emphatic blocks at the net, Cook pumped his fists, squatted deep with the omnipresent "Let's go!" His players rode that energy, a Landfair kill ending a tense couple of minutes to win the set.
The third set continued that tension. Mruzik ripped four kills, pointing at Gophers defenders and talking with a great deal of enthusiasm. Minnesota finally got the middle attack going, with Arica Davis contributing two kills. Scoring runs ran in waves. Challenges came at crucial moments — including a missed floor call that went against the Gophers — and the Nittany Lions seized their moment, and the set, with a late 4-1 scoring run.
It can be hard to isolate what the Gophers lack. Their attack was blistering but can be predictable. The serve receive has improved just as the service errors have ramped up — they had 14 on Saturday. In the fourth set they raced, dove and leapt, trying to find the right combination of momentum and energy.
It didn't happen, and Penn State sashayed off the court, as boisterous as ever and undefeated in Big Ten play.
"Sorry to let the crowd down again, I feel like I have done that quite a bit," Cook said, then struck his usual, forward-looking tone. "But it's September 30th, Monday will be October. If I remember, they didn't decide a champion until December last year."
A decent reminder that no volleyball match in September can be called a must-win, but for the Gophers this was another one of those litmus tests to gauge where they stand in the conference.
For now, the frustration mounts.