Hugh McCutcheon believes cupcakes belong in a bakery, not on a volleyball schedule. Every year, the Gophers coach wants to face the most fearsome nonconference opponents he can find, so his team's flaws can be exposed quickly and addressed before the Big Ten season.
That means the Gophers must be prepared to absorb some early losses — such as the ones against Florida State and at Texas in the first week of the season. Following a 3-0 victory at North Carolina, the No. 8 Gophers were swept on the road by the then-unranked Seminoles and No. 3 Longhorns. The Gophers had not lost back-to-back matches this early since 2015, when they started 0-2.
They ended that season by reaching the Final Four, proving McCutcheon's point. But before any long-term gains, the Gophers still could be in for some short-term pain. Saturday's home opener against No. 7 Florida continues a stretch of four matches against top-10 opponents, with No. 1 Stanford and No. 9 Oregon on tap next weekend.
"No one wants to lose," McCutcheon said. "But we do want to get into trouble and see what happens. I'd rather know now, in September, than all of a sudden find out in December that we had some things we should have been shoring up the whole time and didn't.
"I still believe in this group, no question. We're learning some really important lessons. I think there's plenty of room for optimism."
Those lessons are being taught all over the court. In both losses, the Gophers led 24-20 in the second set and could not close it out.
They were 0-14 on set points Wednesday at Texas, falling 25-22, 29-27, 35-33. In the third set, when the Gophers failed to convert on nine set points, they had 12 service errors. Overall this season, they have seven aces and 27 service errors.
The Gophers also have been outblocked 26-16 in their three matches and have committed 14 receiving errors to their opponents' seven.
Middle blocker Taylor Morgan said the Gophers have superb team chemistry this season and are not discouraged by their results. Knowing what they need to improve upon, she said, has made them work all the harder.
"We're hungry," said Morgan, who is hitting .429 and has four blocks. "We're really focusing on what we need to do to get better.
"It's a new group. We're just figuring things out together. We're learning and making changes day by day."
The newcomers include setter Kylie Miller and defensive specialist Rachel Kilkelly, who have received significant playing time, and outside hitter Airi Miyabe, who has two kills in three matches. The Gophers also changed through subtraction.
Outside hitter Jasmyn Martin of Hopkins transferred to Florida State after two seasons at the U and shined in her first match against the Gophers, with a match-high 16 kills and two blocks. The Gophers also lost a strong defensive specialist/libero in Lauren Barnes, who transferred to Wisconsin.
Morgan and McCutcheon both said the Gophers made noticeable improvement vs. Texas, despite the result. Playing at Maturi Pavilion on Saturday will be "a breath of fresh air," Morgan said.
She agreed with her coach that the Gophers must be willing to test themselves early. Given what awaits them in the Big Ten — four teams ranked in the top six nationally — McCutcheon said there is no easing into the season.
"It's kind of a baptism by fire," he said. "But we've got to get in and get going.''