Hazy afternoon light sagged through the blinds on the two-story windows in Maturi Pavilion this week and backlit the banners showcasing decades of success for the University of Minnesota volleyball program.

Big Ten titles, Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, Final Fours.

Sophomore setter Melani Shaffmaster sat in the bleachers and considered how this unprecedented year in team history — two seasons worth of action crammed into 11 months during a pandemic — impacted her relationship to the game she has played at the highest level in the country for nearly her entire life.

"I'm just going to be honest with you because I don't have a problem telling people, but I was just like, 'I don't know what I'm doing here right now,' " Shaffmaster said. "It's a lot of hard work and just so much more stressful than it should be.

"But I came back to — I've been playing volleyball for 15 years, and it is what I love to do and if I wasn't doing it, I don't know what I would be doing."

Shaffmaster and her Gophers teammates are about to do what is expected of them, opening the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Maturi Pavilion as the No. 12 overall seed against South Dakota on Friday night.

But earned expectations are not easy.

It was the promise of sophomores Shaffmaster and Jenna Wenaas that had to grow in the cauldron of Big Ten competition to complement veterans like Stephanie Samedy, CC McGraw, Katie Myers, Rachel Kilkelly and Airi Miyabe.

"I would say first of all coming here [during the COVID-19 era] is not what anyone planned for," Wenaas said. "It was definitely an adjustment that kind of took a long time to make."

The Gophers started this season 1-3 — with losses to, at the time, No. 10 Baylor, No. 1 Texas and No. 5 Florida. Then they started Big Ten play 3-2 and stood 8-5 overall after losing just three matches all of last season.

The story of how the team turned its season around — finishing the final 15 matches of a rugged Big Ten schedule 12-3 — was built on taking moments of isolation or confusion and using it for team-building.

“We have a responsibility for holistic development. Can we help these people be better people and not just treat them as a competitive commodity? I think that matters. That narrative is not popular, I understand that … but that's what we are here for.”
Coach Hugh McCutcheon

Shaffmaster pointed to a four-set win against Ohio State on a Sunday in late October that came two days after the Gophers were swept at home by Penn State. She said the talk before that Ohio State game was, "We're here for each other. This is what we're going to do for each other. That is all we need to worry about. The other team doesn't matter."

A clean motto: We're here for each other.

It's worked.

Wenaas was just named second team all-conference after finishing second on the team behind Samedy with 336 kills. Shaffmaster's 10.75 assists per set ranked fourth in the Big Ten and jumped from 9.69 per set last season. They each played 102 sets — tied for second on the team, trailing only McGraw's 103.

Coach Hugh McCutcheon said that while the start of Shaffmaster's career was clearly unique, her development had to be personal.

"You've got to stand up and actually do it for real; it's a whole different thing," McCutcheon said. "You can talk to people all the time about what it's like, but you don't know what it's like until you're in it. Experience is the teacher.

"For her, hey, some weaknesses are exposed, opportunities for improvement and all that stuff. But the wonderful thing about Melani is she doesn't get into the whole pity party too much, she just leans into that and sees it as it is, which is an opportunity for improvement and gets to work."

That process of development is something he believes filters through the entire team and never stops until they leave campus.

"We have a responsibility for holistic development," McCutcheon said. "Can we help these people be better people and not just treat them as a competitive commodity? I think that matters. That narrative is not popular, I understand that … but that's what we are here for."

Wenaas said part of that development comes from letting each match illuminate something new about a sport she knows so well.

"Every game is just a whole new experience, which is cool, because I like learning a lot," she said. "But it is an adjustment that I make every week."

Now this week brings a reward for that work. The NCAA tournament at home, banners overhead.

"It feels like a new season now," Wenaas said. "We're all starting over. Doesn't matter if you won the Big Ten or not. We're all in it now."

It will be an earned moment for a group of players that pride themselves on success but clearly see the beauty that has come from obstacles — both internal and external — during a historic year.

"Sometimes I'm re-watching film and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I literally am playing for the University of Minnesota. I can't believe I'm actually here.'" Shaffmaster said. "But we're all supposed to be here. And we wouldn't be here if there wasn't a reason behind it."