The Gophers had four starters returning from the 2019 team that reached volleyball's Final Four, with hitters Stephanie Samedy and Adanna Rollins, middle blocker Regan Pittman and libero C.C. McGraw.
They would be reinforced by the nation's No. 1 recruiting class as rated by the American Volleyball Coaches Association [AVCA]. Those first-year players were hitters Taylor Landfair (No. 1 overall recruit) and Jenna Wenaas (No. 3), and Melani Shaffmaster (No. 16), a 6-foot-3 setter.
"We had four good days of full practice in early August, looking forward to a first match, probably on August 27, and then we found out on the 11th that we were going to be postponed," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said.
The Gophers had started preseason practice in a bubble, and remained inside it for the remainder of August, getting in "some nice training," McCutcheon said.
Once classwork started in September, the Gophers were restricted to four hours of practice and four hours of strength training per week. In November, they were allowed a 20-hour block per week.
The Gophers "shut it down for finals and holidays" on Dec. 9, McCutcheon said, then the second version of preseason practice for this squad of Big Ten-tested veterans and top-rated recruits started this week.
There are no sad songs coming from McCutcheon over the disruptions caused by the pandemic. He sounds grateful for the bond here — a coach, his small staff and the athletes — that most cannot duplicate during these troubled times.
"We're the volleyball team," McCutcheon said. "We take a holistic approach to that. It's about life as much as volleyball. The truth is, 'Normal is not normal' right now, and our team — as students, as athletes, as people — have adjusted to that idea very well."
McCutcheon laughed slightly and said: "I also have the benefit of St. Wizzie taking care of all those adjustments at home."
That would be Hugh's wife Elisabeth, known as Liz (The Wiz) Bachman in her days as a volleyball great, and now making sure the kids, Andrew and Annika, check in for their online learning and all of the rest of parenthood.
In the interest of TV money, the Big Ten was much quicker to get schedules released for men's basketball (and then women's) than was the case for volleyball. We have been hearing since the first hoops games in late November about the great depth of Big Ten men's basketball.
Guess what? That's Big Ten volleyball every season, normally from late August to December, now abnormally from late January to April.
The Big Ten will play a 22-match schedule of conference matches. Competitively, the true change is the matches will be back-to-back on a weekend at one site. The Gophers open Jan. 23-24 at Maturi Pavilion against Michigan State.
The cliché here would be to suggest this will give fans the long-awaited chance to see how the Final Four veterans meld with the No. 1-rated recruiting class. Except, if the Gophers are fortunate, families and a couple of hundred other fans will be able to attend and that's it. For now, there is also no TV schedule on the Big Ten Network for volleyball.
The Gophers have scheduled "tough" for their nonconference matches in McCutcheon's previous eight seasons as coach. This time, the Big Ten scheduled tough for them.
Big Ten teams will play 11 conference opponents and miss two. The two teams the Gophers won't play are Indiana and Rutgers. In 2019, which remains "last season," Indiana was 13th in the Big Ten at 3-17 and Rutgers was 14th (last) at 2-18.
There are six Big Ten teams in the AVCA's preseason Top 25: 1. Wisconsin; 5. Nebraska; 7. Gophers; 9. Penn State; 13. Purdue; and 24. Michigan. The only split series on the schedule comes vs. Wisconsin: March 17 at Madison; March 21 at the Pavilion.
By then, just maybe, the Gophers will be able to put a few thousand rowdies into their perfect volleyball arena — perfect not in elbow room, or in restrooms, or in concession stands, but for fans being on top of the action, and for athletes being inside a pit of sound.
You know what makes top-level college volleyball great, the brand of volleyball the Gophers have been playing for a quarter-century?
You get a frantic match of momentum swings between a pair of monster teams inside that remodeled gem behind the Williams Arena wall and in four or five sets, there are going to be three-dozen goal line stands.
"We have one of the best fan bases and some of the best facilities in the country," McCutcheon said. "The performance center that was built for our athletes; that place is amazing.
"And, we've always loved The Pav, and now we have air conditioning. That has allowed us to increase our training load considerably in the summer.
"We're very fortunate to be here as the volleyball team. I'm very fortunate to be here as the coach."