Hugh McCutcheon won’t be surprised if the 2016 season starts off a lot like it did last year — with losses.
It might sound odd to hear the Gophers volleyball coach foreshadowing his team falling early, especially since he returns 13 players, including five starters, from the program’s first Final Four appearance since 2009.
McCutcheon, in his fifth year, would rather see weaknesses exposed early. The Gophers suffered two losses to open 2015 but rolled to 24 wins in the next 25 matches, including 15 consecutive victories en route to a Big Ten title last year.
“I hope we get into trouble,” McCutcheon said this week. “That’s why we schedule the way we do. I’d rather know now what are our biggest opportunities for improvement rather than when we get into conference play.”
The third-ranked Gophers open Saturday against San Diego in the Stanford Invite in Palo Alto, Calif. They play Sunday against No. 11 Stanford, the first of five ranked nonconference opponents this year.
Starting the season 0-2 last year was disappointing but not shocking on a national scale. The Gophers weren’t a top-25 team and failed to make the NCAA tournament the previous season.
But expectations are much different from those of a year ago.
The only significant player departure from last year’s 30-5 team is Big Ten Player of the Year Daly Santana. Senior middle blocker/right side hitter Hannah Tapp and sophomore setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson return as All-Americas and preseason All-Big Ten selections. Six seniors are back, the most since 2004.
That veteran presence, as well as McCutcheon’s top-10 recruiting class, is a reason why the Gophers are the biggest threat to No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Nebraska in the Big Ten this year.
“We’re not going to sneak up on anyone,” senior middle blocker Paige Tapp said. “Definitely everyone will be chasing us. That’s kind of nice. Just we’re not the underdogs. We have that target on our back. That’s kind of fun to go out in practice every day knowing that. We just set our goals high this year.”
No Santana means no sure-fire outside threat entering this season. Santana ranked sixth in the nation with 584 kills in 2015. The first-team All-America outside hitter and member of Puerto Rico’s Olympic team also led the Gophers in points (654.5) and aces (39).
Minnesota had to figure out different ways to get Santana going last year. If she had an off night — which didn’t happen often — that usually meant the offense struggled.
But the Gophers expect to be more balanced this season with outside hitters Sarah Wilhite and Alyssa Goehner sharing the scoring burden. Alexis Hart stood out at Saturday’s scrimmage at the Sports Pavilion. Hart and fellow freshman Brittany McLean from Rosemount are both first-team high school All-Americas who could push for playing time.
“To put it all on one person’s shoulders, I don’t think that’s the way we need to do it,” McCutcheon said. “We need to see who rises to the top. It’s going to be a really good battle in the right way. These athletes understand how critical competition is to our improvement. They’re not looking to better themselves at someone else’s expense.”
Seliger-Swenson, last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, had opportunities to play for Team USA internationally this summer. But she remained home to build better chemistry with her teammates.
The former Hopkins standout wanted to continue learning their tendencies to see who might be her go-to hitters this season.
“Spreading the ball around and trying not to be super readable and predictable is really what’s going to help us this year,” Seliger-Swenson said. “This summer I think being a setter you have to get to know everybody and all of your hitters and really build those relationships.”
Hannah Tapp became more of an offensive weapon when she moved to the right side at times last year. The 6-2 Stewartville, Minn., native is the Gophers’ returning leader in kills with 365. Paige Tapp wasn’t far behind with 296. She earned All-America honors as a sophomore in 2014 for her defense, but she worked on becoming a more all-around player, like her twin sister.
“I’m excited to see everybody step up in different moments depending on what we need,” Paige Tapp said. “Just looking forward at what we can do; I’m super excited for senior year.”
Regardless of how the Gophers start, McCutcheon said the talent is there to have another special season. But the fifth-year coach’s first message to his players preparing for 2016 was to forget about last year’s Final Four.
“Last year was great, but it’s done,” he said. “We’re not looking back and we’re moving forward. We’re trying to build on the foundation we have. We’re trying to continue to evolve.”