It would be easy to judge Stephanie Samedy solely by the numbers. The Gophers senior is averaging 4.11 kills per set this season, best in the Big Ten, and her all-around volleyball skills puts her among the team leaders in blocks and digs.
But the stat sheet provides a woefully incomplete picture. As much as her teammates appreciate her ability to rain down kills like Zeus hurls thunderbolts, they rely just as much on a quieter part of Samedy's arsenal.
"She's a calming factor on the court," freshman Melani Shaffmaster said. "If something's going wrong, she's the one in the huddle saying, 'Let's move on. Forget that one.' When it's a tough or stressful game, she makes it a lot easier on everyone else."
Thanks to COVID-19, this entire season has been tough and stressful. Samedy's composure — and that mighty arm — have been one of the few constants for the Gophers, steering them to the No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers, who received a first-round bye as a top-16 seed, begin play Thursday with a second-round match in Omaha against Georgia Tech, which beat Lipscomb 25-21, 16-25, 25-21, 25-19 Wednesday.
Samedy's senior season has been unpredictable at best. After months of wondering whether they would play at all, the Gophers embarked on a 22-match, Big Ten-only schedule in January. They have been tested regularly and have followed safety protocols, yet COVID still canceled five matches.
With only a few family members allowed at Maturi Pavilion, Samedy missed out on a loud Senior Night send-off, and the NCAA's decision to hold the entire tournament in Omaha means she has likely played on her home court for the last time. But instead of yearning for what was lost, the 6-2 opposite hitter has chosen to celebrate what was saved, including the opportunity to play for an NCAA title.
"Of course, this isn't how I envisioned it," said Samedy, who last week was named Big Ten Player of the Year. "But we're still playing volleyball. We had a season, and now, we're into the tournament. That's pretty cool.
"As a team, we talk a lot about taking it day by day, because we don't know what to expect. We have an appreciative spirit. We're here, and we made it to a tournament we didn't even know could have happened."
A native of Clermont, Fla., Samedy started her college career as the first Gophers freshman to become a first-team All-America. She immediately established herself as a six-rotation player, leading the team with 478 kills.
Samedy hit .303 and ranked second in digs and third in blocks as a freshman. But that wasn't what coach Hugh McCutcheon admired most. Even after her best performances, Samedy came to every practice ready to learn and grow, developing into a three-time All-America who could become a four-time honoree when this season's team is announced next week.
"Maybe that's the most impressive thing about her career here, this idea of continued improvement," McCutcheon said. "She's a physically gifted and talented volleyball player and had a great freshman year. For many, that might have been enough.
"But she's committed to this process of excellence and works very hard to expand and refine all the parts to her game. As a result, as she stands as a senior, she's able to do a lot of things that are really high-level."
During this difficult, delayed season, Samedy has put on some of her best performances. She had 28 kills and 26 digs — both career highs — in a Feb. 5 victory at Purdue. She hit double digits in kills and digs in six of the Gophers' seven matches against ranked teams.
Samedy also has steadied the Gophers with her on-court composure and off-court camaraderie. Shaffmaster, a freshman setter, recalled being upset with her play in a match at Nebraska. Samedy went to Shaffmaster's hotel room for a talk, giving her young teammate the reassurance she needed.
"She told me she went through the same things, too," Shaffmaster said. "It made me feel like I wasn't alone in that situation. And she's super easy to talk to."
Because of COVID, this season will not count against players' eligibility, allowing seniors an extra year. Samedy hasn't decided whether she will return to the Gophers.
This week, she's thinking only about making the most of every match.
"I want to continue to improve," she said. "I want to just give it all to the team.
"Whatever happens, happens. But I can say I went out trying my hardest."