For the past several years, Hugh McCutcheon stacked the nonconference schedule to prepare his Gophers volleyball team for the Big Ten and reward his passionate fan base with marquee early matchups at Maturi Pavilion.
There had never been a Minnesota home opener quite like Wednesday's 3-1 loss against top-ranked Texas.
After all, the No. 10 Gophers were opening the season on their home court for the first time ever against the nation's No. 1 team.
Exciting opponent aside, the buzz around the announced crowd of 5,167 was about being back at "The Pav" to watch Gophers volleyball again. Fans, now all required to wear masks indoors, were giddy after missing out all of last season during the pandemic.
"It's such a great reminder of what a privilege it is to play here," McCutcheon said. "We're so grateful for the support of the fans. Obviously, we wanted to give them a 'W' tonight, but we gave them some good volleyball."
The pregame hype video and band pumped up the crowd to start, but it was up to McCutcheon's players to keep up the energy. They didn't disappoint.
The Gophers (1-2) trailed 2-0 before keeping the match alive after rallying to win the third set, 25-21. Even the final set seemed within grasp before Texas (3-0) pulled away, 25-22.
Fifth-year senior All-America Stephanie Samedy led the Gophers with 21 kills and 19 digs. If McCutcheon learned anything from the first few matches this season, it's that Samedy needs more help — and there were moments where she had it.
The Gophers used six straight points to lead by as much as 21-14 in the first set behind sophomore Taylor Landfair, a former No. 1 recruit in the nation.
After hitting 6-for-11 to open the match, Landfair struggled to maintain that consistency and finished 11-for-40 on the night. But the All-Big Ten outside hitter from last season still was a go-to threat at times, as was sophomore Jenna Wenaas, who had 11 kills.
"For Taylor, she's obviously a special talent," McCutcheon said. "It was good to see her taking big swings in big moments."
The Gophers, who last beat Texas on the road in 2017, put the Longhorns on upset alert with a big lead in the opening set before collapsing in a 26-24 loss. They hung around in the second set with seven ties but fell, 25-21.
Kentucky won the NCAA title last season, but Texas returned five All-Americans from a 27-2 national runner-up team, including Big 12 player of the year Logan Eggleston, who had 17 kills Wednesday.
Minnesota's 3-1 loss to No. 10 Baylor in Madison, Wis., last week was its first season-opening defeat since 2015.
The Gophers hadn't dropped two of their first three matches since 2019. But they won 10 straight matches that year, including the program's last victory against the country's No. 1 team, over Stanford.
Minnesota's schedule continues to be challenging this year with a first true road game Sunday playing at No. 5 Florida, followed by nationally ranked opponents Stanford and Oregon in Eugene, Ore.
The goal isn't to peak in September but to figure out how to improve enough to be ready for a grueling conference schedule. The Big Ten is as loaded as ever this year. Seven teams were ranked in this week's top 25, including five in the top 10.
Last season, the Gophers had their season postponed with fall sports being delayed until the spring, and COVID-19 restrictions kept fans away.
Just playing a national title contender like Texas tough at home in front of Gophers faithful Wednesday gave McCutcheon a positive vibe even in defeat.
"In a surreal sense," McCutcheon said, "we're just excited and happy to be back in a normal environment after a year in a half of less than normal."