How the Gophers rewire the nation's top volleyball recruits
Maturi Pavilion sat quiet and cavernous in January as three of the best prep volleyball players in America stepped onto its parquet.
They had come from Prior Lake, Colorado and Wisconsin cloaked in accolades and accomplishment. They had graduated from high school early to enroll at the University of Minnesota for spring practice. And they were about to forget everything they knew about the sport they had dominated their entire lives.
Carter Booth, Julia Hanson and McKenna Wucherer were placing their young careers in the hands of one of this state's most successful collegiate athletic programs to have their foundational understanding of the game ripped out from under them.
They did this willingly because the reward could be so great.
In a decade under coach Hugh McCutcheon, the Gophers volleyball team has reached three NCAA Final Fours, five Elite Eights and nine Sweet 16s. Anyone joining the program would have a chance to play electrifying fall nights before capacity crowds and national TV audiences.
Booth was a first-team All-America from Denver. Hanson was the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year. Wucherer, of Brookfield, Wis., was rated as the nation's No. 1 recruit for 2022. But whatever they had previously accomplished got left at the door.
It was not so much an arrival, it was starting over.
Standing inside the Pavilion on that frigid winter morning, they were about to embark on three months of painstaking physiological study of the sport from McCutcheon and his staff. They were about to join some of the best players in the country to put that study into effect. They were about to learn how your very best can be greater than perfection.
Volleyball is a viciously beautiful sport. When a play works, it is like a watch mechanism clicking into place. Get a clean dig to a well-placed set and all of a sudden a young woman is flying through the air trying to bludgeon her opponent with a ball. There's a reason that an attack that scores a point is called a kill.
On the surface, it looks almost improvisational; the players exhibit synchrony like starlings, surge like ocean waves. The swarming switch from defensive zone blocking to offensive sets happens in milliseconds and can leave players sprawled on the court. Rallies for a single point can encompass dozens of touches between two teams. Within a single set, it's possible to play 50 points or more, and within a single match, up to five sets. We're talking about thousands of potential points of contact between the body and a ball that cannot stop moving, and tiny variations in the position of a player's limbs or torso can change the trajectory of the ball. That effect can cascade: Poor leg and arm position on the dig can create a sloppier, hurried set, which leads to a less effective attack. And then, just like that, your opponent is trying to kill you.
It's a sport that invites coaching, and McCutcheon is one of the most accomplished volleyball coaches on Earth. He won a gold medal with the U.S. men's team at the 2008 Olympics and a silver with the U.S. women at the 2012 Games before coming to Minnesota to try a more holistic approach.
During one of the early days of spring practice, he positioned himself at the foot of the bleachers while the team took a water break. He asked if there were any psychology majors in the group.
"Ceec, you're psych, right?" he said to CC McGraw, the All-Big Ten libero who will play a fifth year next season as a graduate student with a degree in psychology.
The group turned to look at McGraw, and McCutcheon asked, "Can you tell them what myelin is?"
On the court, McGraw is a contortionist, one of the finest defensive players the school has ever seen. Off the court, she's just as smart. She stayed quiet, as all great college students know to do when an answer eludes them, and waited out her coach.
McCutcheon turned back to the team at large and explained that myelin is a clear goo that surrounds neural pathways and helps in our ability to form habits.
Spring practice would be a chance for the players to see how much their thinking affects their physical play. And one way to avoid the mistakes of the past was not to change old habits but to create brand-new ones and let the old ways wither. Thus, myelin, the speedy goo.
"The body doesn't do anything without the mind," McCutcheon said.
Only maddening repetition can create habit, and practices were a study in the minute. A strong lead leg and straight arms on the dig, finger positioning on the set, body positioning in the air on the kill, arm positioning on the block, help on defensive rotations, and — since you have six bodies in about 870 square feet — always be talking.
The team split Maturi Pavilion into two courts with players working on both amid a constant swirl of rotations. They had the scoreboards broadcasting live video of each court on about a five-second delay. A common scene was a player attempting something in a drill — say timing patterns on a back-row attack — and then turning around and watching what had gone right or wrong on the attempt.
Two whiteboards were stationed behind the practice courts. One was the daily schedule, written in a crisp script by associate head coach Matt Houk. The other was a grid system the players used to grade themselves on four categories: intent, effort, communication, next play. Beneath the grid was a small cartoon: The Positive Vibes Fairy.
There was unceasing education. Hanson essentially had to relearn how to pass. Booth said it was interesting to barely be able to hit the ball over the net. Wucherer found the silver lining in the endless detail: At least they had months to learn.
In February, the middle blockers and setters were working on quick attacking hits at the net, and Booth, a 6-7 middle, was having a hard time developing timing with Elise McGhie, a 5-10 junior transfer from Kansas. The set would be an inch too low, or Booth would be a second slow or fast on her leap. But those tiny miscues sent arms flailing and balls sailing. Exasperation set in.
Houk, who is entering his eighth season with the Gophers, paused practice, gathered the players and leaned in as they circled. "Can we be vulnerable?" he asked. "Because this is why we will be great in September, October, November, December."
They returned to the drill and things opened up. The slow-slow-fast rhythm Houk wanted on the jump merged with precisely placed sets. Booth, after a seismic, echoing spike, raised her arms. Her teammates hollered. Houk tilted his head back and screamed to the sky.
The notion of collaboration between players and coaches to create change is in McCutcheon's strategic DNA.
He went about the court calmly, sweatpants clinging to his socks just above his sneakers, hands tucked in the pouch of a hooded sweatshirt. His is a searching demeanor, moving through practice with gentle eyes and a New Zealand lilt. He channeled what his players were feeling at a given moment, and, like Monet in Giverny or Vänskä on the conductor's podium, seemed to somehow extract more life from a living thing.
When a player's spike was off, he held elbows and wrists, moving arms through air. When Wucherer was late on a dig, he chided her by standing on the balls of his feet, rocking back and forth and saying, "Remember, Wuchsie, when you're moving, you're moving on your toes." His most consistent, emphatic refrain was, "Yes!" And he worked within the limitations of his good humor. One morning, as music rose from the speakers overhead, he said, "With the soothing sounds of Beyoncé, nothing can go wrong."
But he is at his best when things go wrong.
In the middle of March, there was a noticeable pall around the Pavilion. McCutcheon sat the team in a semicircle around the whiteboard and said the way they were thinking about themselves was destructive.
"I understand the importance of trying to be the best you can be," he told them. "But having perfection as the standard, where that's the expectation, is really self-defeating. Because I just want you to know no one has ever played, or will ever play, a perfect game of volleyball."
He lectured on self-talk, negative biases, the effect of harsh language on the brain and the privilege of getting to play in this gym.
"We don't give anyone the chance to be here because we feel sorry for them," he said. "You have earned the right to be here."
He told them to look out for one another, to listen to one another, to realize that negative internal emotions and put-downs followed them around like clouds. And that it didn't have to be that way. It was OK to feel bad. But it was also imperative to work to understand those emotions in a healthy way. He told them they were the most important coach they had.
"If we can change our thoughts, we can change our actions. Simple as that," he said.
A few minutes later, as the team sat in the bleachers, assistant coach Jen Houk came over and pointedly addressed them.
"If we as coaches talked to you the way you talk to yourself, would you ever stay here?" she asked. "We are taught as women to be humble. Don't tolerate it. It's OK to build yourself up. It's not just OK — it's necessary."
The practice hummed like a live wire. McCutcheon was exceedingly vocal, breaking in to ask his players, "Can I be the best person for the team as opposed to being the best person on the team?"
He hollered: "You all know how to play your version of volleyball. We're trying to show you how to play our version." He implored them to get to know one another in the world. And when practice was over, he brought them together and told them why.
"This is a really good team," he said. "We have character, talent, personalities. Put your heart into it. This is a team worth fighting for."
And then he had everyone turn to Nao Ikeda, the longtime director of operations for the program, and sing "Happy Birthday."
This style of coaching attracts the best volleyball players in the country, so when a player who has been the best her whole life arrives on campus, a bunch of other best players with more experience are already there.
During 6-on-6 drills, there was so much talent on the court that it felt like watching two excellent Division I teams compete.
Taylor Landfair was the top recruit in her class. She's an outside hitter whose height belies her athleticism. She does not so much hit the ball as unfurl upon it. She enrolled for spring practice in 2020 and was named All-Big Ten first team after her freshman season.
But the mental hurdles were high.
"I would get overwhelmed or stressed or really frustrated," Landfair recalled. "During that process, I know Hugh would say, 'Just trust the process. It's OK to make mistakes. We make mistakes just to learn.' I really had to take that under my wing."
It's an important lesson because the process never ends.
McGraw is from Prior Lake and has been around the program since she was a teenager. She has been named All-Big Ten first team twice and spent a week training with Team USA this spring.
"I've gotten to a space where I don't beat myself up for every rep," she said. "You need to have that shift when you get here because if you stay in that same space, you're just going to be so mentally drained."
As spring practice time increased to 20 hours per week and the Gophers started scrimmaging other teams, the intensity rose and everything seemed to loosen. Smiles appeared as defenders stacked at the net, dances sprang organically in the huddle, the clap of high-fives became a soundtrack.
Somewhere in the swirl, Booth, Hanson and Wucherer blended in. But it wasn't their talent that made them fit, it was their resilience to handle the work. As practice entered its final week, the three freshmen gathered back on the bleachers.
They took off shin guards and unraveled athletic tape and had an air of accepted exhaustion about them that brought to mind something Landfair said about playing sports at a high level your whole life: You mature a lot faster.
They had spent months in extremely deep waters.
"Hugh was talking the other day and I just sort of had, not an out-of-body experience, but in my mind I was like, 'If I was a random person who walked in and was listening to this, it would sound like absolute gibberish,'" Booth said amid laughter. "But I can truly say I understand every single word he's saying."
That depth of coaching, the intensity, had changed them.
"I knew I wanted to play for these coaches," Hanson said. "I knew it was going to be a challenge and I knew they'd push us."
Threading their reflections was a sense that they had started to let go of basing success strictly on results — of learning it's OK to not be perfect, after trying to be perfect for so long.
"I have learned more about myself than I ever have," Wucherer said.
The first scrimmage of the spring was held at Blue Earth High School on a Saturday in early April.
At 1:30 p.m., about 30 minutes before the four-set exhibition against South Dakota, the stands were absolutely packed. Overflow seating was opened. Everywhere was maroon and gold.
And this collection of players finally got to play as the Gophers.
Landfair launched a spike at one point that was so resounding it made a teenager in the crowd, who seconds earlier had been discussing the ethics of making FaceTime calls at work, quietly mutter, "Oh my God."
The freshmen debuted in the second set. They all had their moments. Wucherer sailed through the air for tips. Booth was dynamic at the net on offense and defense. Hanson ended the scrimmage with a clean kill.
Afterward, fans mobbed the team. They snapped pictures for a half-hour.
It was easy, as the freshmen were engulfed, to imagine what is coming for them.
They will play matches with gigantic stakes where things will come together, minds and bodies operating alongside their teammates' like a single, cohesive entity. They will obliterate opponents and have no choice but to circle up and scream at the top of their lungs.
And they will play matches with gigantic stakes where things will fall apart. Their opponent will be too tough. Their synapses will fire a millisecond too slow and success will float out of reach, like a set just a hair too high.
But if this program succeeds this fall, whatever happens on the court will be secondary to a greater, more difficult goal:
To find something outside of yourself to believe in, to give every last ounce of yourself to it and live with what comes. Tomorrow is a whispered promise. If you're lucky, you get to climb off the bleachers and try, once more, to be a little bit better.