The Gophers volleyball team sat in the comfortable confines of the Williams Arena Club Room for a Selection Sunday party as it awaited its seed in the NCAA tournament.
Players busied themselves with games of 'Heads Up!' while coaches ate pizza, everyone surrounded by family.
It was the kind of environment that seemed natural after a marauding weekend where the team defeated two top 10 opponents and played some of its best volleyball of the year.
The reward? The No. 8 overall seed and the No. 2 seed in the Texas regional of the tournament, an opening matchup with Southeastern Louisiana at Maturi Pavilion and a familiar, loaded bracket that they will have to navigate to reach the Final Four.
"I think an eight seed, it seems appropriate," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "I think our body of work here in the home stretch is something we are really proud of."
The Gophers will host the first two rounds and open play against the Lions out of the Southland Conference at 7 p.m. Friday. The other side of the bracket will see Northern Iowa face Florida State, the No. 7 seed, at 4:30 p.m. The winners play Saturday.
Looming for the Gophers as a potential Sweet 16 matchup is Ohio State, the No. 3 seed in the region. The Gophers and Buckeyes split their regular-season matchups, with Minnesota winning in Columbus on Friday night.
The Gophers and Buckeyes are joined by four other Big Ten teams in the tournament.
The Gophers have familiarity with the Longhorns. They played at Texas in their third match of the season on Aug. 31, losing in four sets.
Of course, a lot has transpired since then.
There is no question the Gophers are prepared for anything the tournament can throw at them. They played 17 of their 28 matches this season against teams that reached the tournament, including every nonconference opponent they faced.
That schedule tested them early and left plenty of room for doubt.
After the Buckeyes swept them at Maturi Pavilion on Oct. 12, the Gophers were 9-6 and 4-3 in conference play. Four days later McCutcheon announced he wold be resigning at the end of the year. It was a shocking moment in a searching season and a decent time to wonder if the wheels were coming off for this phenomenal collection of talent.
"After that early loss to Ohio State and the upset [loss to] Northwestern I think we definitely took a long, hard look in the mirror and were like, 'What can we do? What can we change?'" libero CC McGraw said.
Since then they are 11-2.
"I think we're definitely firing on all cylinders right now," McGraw said. "Things are clicking. Hugh always talks about we want to peak in December and I think that's what we're doing, trying to find the momentum heading into the tournament."
This weekend's road trip was the perfect example.
Defeating a desperate No. 8-ranked Ohio State team on Friday and immediately traveling to face the No. 5 Cornhuskers on Saturday — the Gophers' first back-to-back matches of the season, coinciding nicely with Senior Night at Devaney Center.
The Gophers swept.
But it wasn't just that they won two road matches against top 10 opponents. It was how they did it. Taylor Landfair swinging ferociously, somehow never tiring. McGraw and Rachel Kilkelly locking down the back row. Jenna Wenaas attacking, digging and blocking at every moment. Melani Shaffmaster roving, dictating the game plan. Mckenna Wucherer never stopping in a search for gaps. And the Gophers stellar crew of middle blockers — Carter Booth, Arica Davis and a steadying Naya Gros — patrolling the net on offense and defense.
It was the kind of weekend that recast the entire season.
This was the team that the Gophers players, coaches and fans have wanted to see. All of a sudden here they are, about to play under the brightest lights college volleyball has to offer.
"It feels like we're in a good spot," McCutcheon said. "Having gone through some of that adversity earlier it has afforded us the opportunity to feel pretty good about where we are now."
Not a bad way to come back home.