Hugh McCutcheon made sure his players knew how he felt, telling them frequently how much he admired their resilience and commitment. Thursday night, the Gophers volleyball coach shared that sentiment publicly, in the aftermath of a 3-0 loss to Stanford in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
“I have so much pride in our team,’’ he said. “It was one of the greatest seasons that I’ve got to be a part of. What a privilege it was to work with this group.’’
Though McCutcheon was sad to see it end, he wasn’t gloomy. The Gophers shrugged off injuries and lineup changes to finish 27-6 and reach the Final Four for the third time in five years. While Alexis Hart, Taylor Morgan, Kylie Miller and Lauren Litzau finished their college careers Thursday, 11 players are expected to return next season — and they will be joined by a powerhouse recruiting class.
The Gophers’ newcomers include Taylor Landfair, a 6-4 outside hitter ranked as the nation’s No. 1 recruit by PrepVolleyball.com; Jenna Wenaas, a 6-1 outside hitter ranked No. 3; 6-3 setter Melani Shaffmaster, ranked No. 16; and libero Cami Appiani. Landfair and Shaffmaster will arrive on campus in January, giving them an early start.
The veterans — led by All-America honorees Regan Pittman, Stephanie Samedy and CC McGraw — will bring a little something extra, too. After reaching the Final Four through perseverance and unity, their aim is to maintain it.
“After the sting goes away, we can look back and say, ‘Yeah, we had a good season,’ ’’ said Samedy, the Gophers’ top hitter with 3.1 kills per set. “We were able to do some great things.
“We were playing for each other. And every time we were in practice, we were trying to get better, playing hard, working to make each other better. I think that will continue to carry on.’’
The season came to an abrupt end against Stanford, which rode the arm of Kathryn Plummer into Saturday’s title match against Wisconsin. The 6-6 senior had 26 kills and five blocks, and she was in such a zone against Minnesota that any plan to limit her might have been futile.
The Gophers thought they had a sound defensive strategy, built around patterns they had identified in the way the Cardinal distributed the ball. They had to adapt when Stanford elevated Plummer’s role, giving her more attack opportunities than usual. She finished with 26 kills on 51 swings, slicing through the Gophers from all areas of the court.
Stanford shined on defense, too, using its speed and blocking to keep the Gophers in check. Ultimately, McCutcheon said, his team simply could not put enough pressure on the Cardinal to knock it out of its rhythm.
“Most teams, if you can get them to start thinking a little bit, then it gets a little tougher,’’ he said. “But they were just swinging away, and they were making a lot of really good plays.
“There was lots of space that got created because you had to look for [Plummer] in the front row and the back row. Even if she was on the bench, I’m sure she still would have killed it from there.’’
Reflecting on the season, McCutcheon said he thought the Gophers would be in good position if they went .500 during the nonconference schedule. They were 6-2, with a victory over then-No. 1 Stanford. Then the injuries began to happen, forcing some players into new roles and positions.
The Gophers made the best of it, with McCutcheon saying their 17-3 Big Ten record was beyond his expectations. Next season, Landfair will add height and a broad skill set, and Wenaas brings another powerful arm. McCutcheon said Shaffmaster is a gifted setter, and at 6-3, she also is expected to pitch in with offense and blocking.
The returnees include three of the Gophers’ top four hitters — Samedy, Pittman and Adanna Rollins — and reliable back-row players McGraw and Rachel Kilkelly.
Though Hart is among those moving on, she hopes this season left a lasting impact.
“I feel like the team gave our all in every match,’’ she said. “I’m just really excited how the season went, and really proud of this team.’’