COLUMBUS, Ohio – As much as Hannah Tapp wanted to win a national championship, that wasn’t the only thing on her mind during her senior season with the Gophers.
“All of us want to leave this program better than when we found it,’’ she said of herself and five teammates nearing the end of their college volleyball careers. “We want to make sure that even after we leave, it’s still about hard work, being a great teammate and being selfless.’’
The Gophers didn’t get the NCAA title they pined for, ending their season with a 3-1 loss to Stanford on Thursday night in the national semifinals. Coach Hugh McCutcheon, though, believed the seniors achieved their ambition of setting up the program for long-term success.
For the second year in a row, the Gophers made it to the Final Four and fell short of capturing the program’s first NCAA championship. But over the course of a 29-5 season, McCutcheon saw progress. Last year, senior Paige Tapp said, the Gophers “let the moment get pretty big’’ and withered in their NCAA semifinal loss to Texas. This time, only the Stanford hitters loomed too large in their view.
The Tapp twins and national player of the year Sarah Wilhite are among six seniors who completed their time with the Gophers on Thursday. They trust that a decorated group of returnees — including first-team All-America setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson and honorable mention All-Americas Molly Lohman and Alexis Hart — will keep pushing the program forward.
“I’m just proud of the way we played, even though we came up short,’’ said Wilhite, who Thursday became the first Gopher named national player of the year. “We never lost belief. I think it was a lot different from last year.
“It hurts finishing this way, but we had a great season. Throughout the four years, we always were fighting, and we were always connected and unified. I think that’s something to be proud of.’’
After reflecting on last year’s semifinal loss, the Gophers wrote down thoughts that could help them avoid feeling overwhelmed the next time they reached the Final Four. That couldn’t help them subdue a Stanford team loaded with skyscrapers 6-3 and taller. Though Paige Tapp said the Gophers could have been more patient in seeking shots that could break the Cardinal block, they matched Stanford’s energy in a match filled with breathtaking rallies.
McCutcheon said the Gophers added skills to the team’s tool kit this season. In a run of five-set victories over ranked Big Ten foes, they demonstrated their growing ability to “pick the lock’’ in tight matches, sizing up their opponents and making swift adjustments on the fly to take control. They also developed a more multifaceted game, giving them more options.
The Gophers will lose three of their top four hitters — Wilhite, second-team All-America Hannah Tapp and Paige Tapp — and defensive specialist Katie Schau. Hart made a big impression with her huge swing, finishing second on the team with 348 kills and earning North Region freshman of the year honors, and Seliger-Swenson was the Big Ten setter of the year.
McCutcheon, who is 134-37 in five seasons, praised his seniors for setting a standard and identity for the program. As much as he will miss them, he is confident their work will continue to pay dividends.
“That legacy piece is critical, now that we’ve got some of these things in place,’’ he said. “They have to be able to pass it on, and I think this group has done a nice job. Now it’s up to the juniors and sophomores to take on that responsibility.’’