The Gophers volleyball team has spent this season in a constant state of growth — merging young players into a program with extremely high expectations while dealing with injuries and playing its second full season in 2021.
Players and coaches have repeatedly said the goal all along was to be playing their best volleyball in December.
Well, look at the calendar.
In a second round NCAA tournament matchup dripping with history and pedigree, the No. 12 seeded Gophers routed Stanford in straight sets 25-20, 25-18, 25-17, advancing to the Sweet 16 in Madison, Wis., next week where they will face No. 5 Baylor.
They did it without All-Big Ten libero CC McGraw, who missed her second game with an illness, and showed how complete and rounded this team can be.
Junior Rachel Kilkelly stepped in for McGraw for the second straight game and was perfect in handling all 23 of her receptions while posting nine digs.
"I mean it's not the first time that I've had to do that," she said. "We work on playing with a bunch of different people together in different groups. I think that is what helps us in these moments when we don't have a normal lineup out there."
Coach Hugh McCutcheon had a different take: "Don't underestimate what Rachel has done this weekend. This is a great performance by her."
She wasn't alone.
Minnesota was balanced and varied in its offensive attack and confounding on defense — harnessing Stanford's height and power.
Stephanie Samedy finished with a team-high 16 kills and teammates Jenna Wenaas (14 kills) and Airi Miyabe (11 kills) were just as electric. All three targeted nuanced angles and varied depths. The Gophers hit .339 with 48 kills, while Stanford hit .164 — its lowest mark on the season — with 37 kills.
Initially it didn't seem like it would be such a lopsided affair.
There were eight ties and one lead change as the score sat 16-16 in the first set.
"The beginning of this match was quite impressive ... both teams were hitting around .450 or .500," McCutcheon said. "Everybody was waiting to see who was going to blink first."
Miyabe provided the dust in Stanford's eye.
The Gophers senior, wearing a bulky brace on her right leg, took over the serve and the match was never the same.
Minnesota ran off six straight points in a dominant stretch of play that included two kills by Samedy and one by Ellie Husemann.
"I usually don't go back row and serving, so for me it's really nervous every single time," Miyabe said. "Whenever I'm going to the end line to serve, I just like focusing on ... whatever I can bring to the team at the moment."
That attitude permeated the roster. Melani Shaffmaster tallied 36 assists and constantly put Wenaas, Miyabe and Samedy in explosive spots.
"We were scrambling all night to get a hold of them to try to figure them out," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. "I just thought they played a really smart, efficient match."
Now the Gophers travel to Madison to face Baylor. A potential rematch with No. 4 Wisconsin looms. Minnesota's record against those teams this season? 0-3.
But, of course, entering Saturday they were just 2-10 all-time against Stanford and 0-4 in the NCAA tournament.
"It feels really good to be playing like this," Kilkelly said. "Our connection off the court helps us be better on the court. I think that it's going to help us continue to have success."
Right at the perfect time of year.