The news caught Hugh McCutcheon completely by surprise, like a wily setter dumping the ball over the net. Volleyball prodigy Melani Shaffmaster — an eighth-grader — ended her college recruitment on her first visit to Minnesota in 2016, giving the Gophers coach a commitment before she returned home to Indiana.
It seemed almost too good to be true, especially after McCutcheon looked at the calendar.
"It was on April 1," he said. "I really was holding my breath for 24 hours, just to make sure I wasn't getting pranked."
When it comes to volleyball, Shaffmaster doesn't fool around. The freshman setter felt at home from the moment she set foot on campus, and she's become an integral part of the lineup just as quickly.
Heading into this weekend's two-match series at No. 4 Nebraska, Shaffmaster has helped the fifth-ranked Gophers to an 8-0 record. While McCutcheon praised her ability to "flat-out dish the rock," she can do more than set up the team's array of powerful hitters. At 6-3, Shaffmaster is unusually tall for a setter, and she's displayed a wide range of skills as well as a steady temperament.
The rookie has started every match and played in all 31 sets this season. In addition to leading the Gophers in assists (9.81 per set), she has contributed 90 digs, 13 blocks, 28 kills and six aces.
"She's adapted really well," senior Stephanie Samedy said. "Being able to block, serve, defense, everything we need in a setter, I think she's done a great job. And she's continuing to improve as a player. I'm proud of her."
That desire to improve helped sway Shaffmaster during her initial visit to the U. Even then, she constantly sought to polish the details of her game — making her a good fit with McCutcheon and his staff, who emphasize technical development.
Despite her age, Shaffmaster said, it was an easy choice to call a quick end to the recruiting process.
"I went on a couple of visits before I came here," said Shaffmaster, ranked No. 16 nationally in her recruiting class. "I felt different when I was here.
"I remember I was nervous — I was in middle school, and it was a lot to take in — but I just couldn't stop smiling. I was happy the whole time. This was where I wanted to be, and my coaches and parents were behind me."
Growing up in New Castle, Ind., Shaffmaster started as an outside hitter with her club team, Munciana Volleyball. When she was 12, she filled in at setter for an injured teammate.
The position suited her ultra-calm demeanor, and Shaffmaster liked being in the middle of the action on every play. Though a growth spurt in sixth and seventh grade put her over the six-foot mark, she said everyone on her club team was comfortable in their positions, so she stayed put.
After casting her lot with the Gophers, Shaffmaster kept progressing, winning three high school state championships and earning All-America honors five times.
"The thing we liked with Mel is the completeness of her game," McCutcheon said. "But the thing I like most about her is, she's just a really solid, low-ego, high-output kid. She's really just there to play hard and compete. There's not much else to it."
With the season delayed by five months, Shaffmaster — who joined the Gophers program in January 2020 — had a year to build chemistry with hitters and refine her skills before Big Ten play. She has looked comfortable from the start.
In the first month of the season, Shaffmaster earned two Big Ten awards: freshman of the week (Jan. 25) and setter of the week (Feb. 8). While her height is an advantage in itself, McCutcheon said her mobility and vertical leap make her even more valuable. So does her unflappability, which kept her nerves in check during the season opener.
"I was like, 'Is this real?' " Shaffmaster said. "A couple of years ago, I was sitting over there watching. It was surreal."
McCutcheon used the same word to describe his feelings five years ago, when an eighth-grader's visit produced a surprise ending.
"It was clear it was a good fit," he said. "And that's been validated, at least for me, even more so since she's been here."