It has been a long fall for Minnesota sports. A long autumn, too.
Saturday night at the University of Minnesota’s Sports Pavilion, the best team in the town, cities or state offered a night of entertainment that could make mainstream sports fans question their predilections.
The top-ranked Gophers volleyball team swept No. 12 Hawaii to advance to the NCAA regional semifinals, producing a night that felt like a day spa — a refreshing break from the norm of Twin Cities sports.
The athletes are spectacular. There is little wasted motion — every moment counts.
The Gophers sell out the Pavilion. The crowd is loud, but there are no artificial efforts, as in some professional arenas, to make ears bleed.
There were no choreographed victory dances or look-at-me moments. Best of all, there is no obsessing over possible missed calls by the officials — no arguments or drawn-out conferences, or three-minute replay conferences.
The Gophers won 25-17, 25-17, 25-19 in about an hour and a half. Fans were out the door by 7:40 with plenty of time to enjoy a Saturday night, leaving Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon to reflect on how the Pavilion became the place to be.
“Certainly in ’15, there were some very special nights,” he said. “I think there was certainly a shift in our performances and the way we played toward the end of ’14 and ’15, and I think since then we’ve been playing at a pretty high level for a while now.
“We have people coming out to support us. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of, just to be connected to that many people who are supporting us and who genuinely care about our program and our team. It’s a privilege.”
McCutcheon arrived at Minnesota after coaching in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Last year his program finished 30-5 and reached the Final Four. This year’s team has reached No. 1.
There is much to applaud here. McCutcheon is a gentleman who has built a powerhouse. Gophers fans have taken note.
“It’s kind of like Hawaii’s atmosphere,” said Hawaii’s Annie Mitchem. “Really loud, and the fans are super crazy. It was hard to come back once we were down.”
If there was a flaw in the Gophers winning two matches in straight sets at the Pavilion this weekend, it was produced, predictably, by the NCAA. The Gang That Can’t Think Straight had 12th-ranked Hawaii fly to Minnesota to be eliminated.
The nation’s No. 1 team deserved an easier subregional. Hawaii deserved a better chance.
“I told my team I wasn’t going to comment on this, the NCAA selection,” Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said. “But since you asked me …
“It’s just unfortunate that we had to come here. I don’t think Hugh was happy to see us here, either. I’m just at a loss for how the committee put us in this subregional. I think we deserved better. I’m looking around the country and seeing some of the second-round matchups, and I think we could have won a bunch of them.”
The Gophers have become the program nobody wants to play, and the Pavilion has become the place opponents least want to play them.
“Minnesota’s got a lot of weapons and I think they’ll go very far in this tournament,” Shoji said.
McCutcheon doesn’t want to hear that. More important, he doesn’t want his players to hear that. He said he has tried to keep his players from reading too much praise, too many projections. It is a testament to his work on campus that his biggest challenge may be controlling optimism.
“We started talking about expectations in August,” he said. “It’s not like we’re here and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Geez, this is getting real.’ We’ve been playing for this for awhile. And when I say ‘planning,’ we always hope to achieve these things. We don’t expect them.”
Saturday night, it sounded like there were at least 5,442 Gopher fans who didn’t mind dwelling on the volleyball team’s latest success.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. Email: email@example.com