As the Gophers began volleyball practice last week, coach Hugh McCutcheon caught a glimpse of a promising future. Several players returning from last year's Final Four team had improved over the summer, and the nation's top-ranked recruiting class was adapting quickly.
That made Tuesday's news all the more disappointing. The Big Ten's postponement of fall sports means the Gophers volleyball, women's soccer and men's and women's cross-country teams will not compete until next spring, if at all.
McCutcheon believes a spring schedule would have "a pretty similar rhythm.'' He envisions playing nonconference matches against regional opponents, perhaps starting in January, and he speculated the NCAA tournament could be held in May, maybe alongside the men's NCAA championship that is always held in the spring. In the meantime, he and his team will have to be patient.
"It's good to have the decision made, and we can move forward,'' McCutcheon said. "And the thing driving it is the health and safety, as it should.
"I'm sure [the players] are disappointed. It's clear they have the capacity to play some pretty great volleyball. We'll just keep our fingers and toes crossed that we get a crack at it in the spring, and go from there.''
Women's soccer coach Stefanie Golan said the news was "really, really difficult,'' but she and her players were relieved to hear their schedule was delayed rather than canceled. Like McCutcheon, she said her team was committed to improving during the offseason, despite the pandemic. Players returned to campus in excellent physical condition and will seek to maintain that as they target spring competition.
"We've always known this was a possibility,'' said Golan, whose team was 3-12-4 last year. "[The postponement] gives us hope that we can come out on the other side of this and still get an opportunity to compete in the spring.
"We all understand this virus is no joke. There's a lot of information we're still gathering and still learning. If it's going to potentially be safer for us to tackle this in the spring, then let's do it.''
McCutcheon and Golan are waiting to get more details on what their teams will be allowed to do in the fall. Until school starts, they can practice 20 hours per week, the normal allotment. McCutcheon said fall practice parameters could be similar to the usual spring schedule.
Golan thinks a spring soccer season is feasible, but she said the Gophers would have to play inside a bubble or other indoor facility, or travel to warmer climates for early-season matches.
Though the Big Ten deferred a decision on winter and spring sports, the Pac-12 postponed all sports, including basketball, competing through the end of 2020. In a statement, conference CEOs said the Pac-12 will consider returning to competition after Jan. 1, 2021, "when conditions improve.''
That could be a harbinger of things to come for the Gophers and the Big Ten. The Gophers' basketball, hockey, wrestling, swimming and diving, and indoor track and field teams began their 2019-20 seasons between September and December. One Minnesota school, Division III Carleton, already has postponed competition for all teams through the end of the calendar year.
In a Zoom news conference Tuesday, U athletic director Mark Coyle said there already had been "many conversations'' about how to handle winter sports that usually start before Jan. 1, and "we'll start to have further conversations'' on the potential impact on the schedules for those sports.