Following Sunday's defeat in the NCAA regional semifinals, the Gophers volleyball team can finally get a break. But it won't be a very long one.
The Gophers didn't play for 13 months, after COVID-19 pushed the 2020 fall season into spring 2021. With the sports calendar expected to return to normal this year, they will effectively have two seasons in 2021, the one that just ended and the one set to begin at the usual time in late August. That means an offseason that typically lasts eight months will be slashed to just four.
Coach Hugh McCutcheon praised the Gophers for grinding through an uncertain year, finishing second in the Big Ten with a 15-2 league record and earning the No. 3 overall seed for the NCAA tournament. After a long-delayed season ended with a 3-2 loss to Pitt in the Sweet 16, he already was thinking about the short lead time until the next.
"No one was party to the decision process to get football going again [last] fall," said McCutcheon, whose team finished 16-3 overall. "But I think if football got going in the fall, it would have been good for the other fall sports to play.
"Staring down the barrel of back-to-back seasons is going to be challenging. These seasons are rigorous, especially in the Big Ten. So you need a little time to mentally and physically and emotionally recover. And it's going to be a quick turnaround."
The Gophers began team activities 8½ months ago on Aug. 6. When the Big Ten announced it would not play volleyball in the fall, they stayed together, getting in some extra work before full practices began on Nov. 2.
That helped prepare heralded freshmen Taylor Landfair, Melani Shaffmaster and Jenna Wenaas to take on significant roles. Landfair, the nation's top recruit in the class of 2020, played 70 of 71 sets; her 3.03 kills per set were second only to senior Stephanie Samedy's 4.15.
The 6-3 Shaffmaster stepped in at setter and gave the Gophers versatility at the position. She led the Gophers with 198 digs, and her 42 blocks ranked fourth on the team. Wenaas, an outside hitter, shifted to defensive specialist after CC McGraw was injured and capably filled a major void.
After Sunday's loss, McCutcheon said he thought the Gophers were good enough to reach the Final Four. Samedy, the Big Ten Player of the Year, is still considering whether to return next season and use the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the pandemic. McGraw, a junior, missed the last seven matches because of a leg injury; despite the brief offseason, the team hopes she will be ready for the fall season.
For now, McCutcheon just wants the Gophers to rest, if only for a short time.
"I thought there were lots of important steps forward," he said. "I don't think anyone can truly understand the burden that they all took on. Coming back to school early in the middle of the pandemic, and being here and the season canceled, then the season's back on. The daily testing and the rigor of all of it is a lot.
"It's been a long year. There's a lot to be proud of. I just think this team was able to grow and evolve in lots of really important ways."