Good volleyball teams talk constantly on the court. They yell to each other when the ball is in play and huddle quickly between points.
The Gophers volleyball team found this season that their play improves when they continue conversations between practices and games. Ask current players about volleyball, and they will mention their team’s favorite card game, their bowling nights, their spring trip to Japan, their team dinners at their coach’s house.
Hugh McCutcheon, their coach and occasional host, used the word “analog’’ to describe his team’s bonding during the last year. If he wanted to dispense with modesty, he could use the word “historic’’ to describe the team’s accomplishments.
One season after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998, the Gophers rank fourth in the nation in the coaches’ poll, have won the Big Ten’s coach, player and rookie of the year awards, and captured the highest national seed (second overall) in program history. They will face Jackson State in the first round at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Sports Pavilion.
“When you get a group that is as connected as this group is, I think all things become possible,’’ McCutcheon said. “You can have talent, but without the culture that supports that, it’s difficult. But once you get a group that wants to battle for each other and with each other, you don’t know what you’re going to get out of that, but you know that it’s possible that something great could come of it, and that seems to be the case thus far.’’
Modern college athletes spend a remarkable amount of time on school and sport, and it’s easy for them to spend the rest of their time on their computers or phones. Since last season, the Gophers have made an effort to, as McCutcheon puts it, “go analog,’’ whether that means playing “Nerts’’ or conversing over a meal.
“Nerts’’ is their favorite card game. “It’s very complex,’’ outside hitter Sarah Wilhite said. “It’s really fast-paced. Whenever someone new sees it, we have them just watch because we can’t explain it.’’
In that way it is like teamwork in volleyball.
The Gophers began this season unranked after finishing 9-11 in conference play last year. This year they set a program best with an 18-2 record in the Big Ten.
So it wasn’t surprising when McCutcheon was named the Big Ten coach of the year, senior Daly Santana was named conference player of the year and setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson was named freshman of the year.
The Gophers hadn’t captured a player of the year award since 2003 or a freshman of the year award since 1993.
Junior middle blocker Hannah Tapp joined Santana and Seliger-Swenson on the All-Big Ten team.
“I’ve said this before and I certainly stick by it — the team last year was probably a little immature,’’ McCutcheon said. “They weren’t knuckleheads. They’re great kids. They were just a little naive as to be in close situations and how to finish sets off. We had a very high number of close sets that we were involved in, and we came up short a bunch. This year has been the opposite of that.
“If you’re talking about the total sum of how much better we are, I’m not sure it’s that many points, but it’s getting those points at the right time.’’
McCutcheon is not new to high-level competition or lofty expectations. He coached the U.S. men’s national team to an Olympic gold medal in 2008 in Beijing, its first gold since 1998. He coached the U.S. women’s team to a silver medal in 2012 in London.
He had accepted the Gophers’ job before the London Olympics and in his first season at Minnesota took the team to the Elite Eight. In his second season, the Gophers reached the Sweet 16. Last year proved to be a rare lapse for the program and McCutcheon.
“I think there’s always opportunity in adversity,’’ he said. “As painful as it was to not be selected, we understand, ‘OK, that’s the decision, what can we do about it?’ Well, we can get to work and make sure it doesn’t happen again. If that motivated our athletes, maybe there was a silver lining in that after all.’’
The Gophers feature two players from Puerto Rico, one from California, one from Colorado, one from Washington and two from Michigan. The other nine are from Minnesota, a state boasting strong club programs and talented players who don’t associate high-level volleyball with salt water.
Junior middle blocker Paige Tapp is from Stewartville, Minn. She didn’t see any reason to leave her home state. “Hugh is one of the best coaches in the world and so is his staff,’’ Tapp said. “We come here and learn everything from scratch. Also, this sport means so much to the state of Minnesota. It’s so great to play for a state that cares so much. We’re so well-supported, I just couldn’t see myself anywhere else.
“You tend to think of California and other warmer areas as volleyball hotbeds, but with the club atmosphere here, there are 12,000 young volleyball players in Minnesota.’’
Many of the best stay home, where they’re coached by a New Zealand native whose accent remains a source of fascination for his players.
“When we come in as freshmen, we’re like, ‘That accent is so great — I could just listen to him talk all day,’ ’’ Tapp said.
After a one-year break, the Gophers are again hearing McCutcheon’s accent frame the challenges of winning a championship.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On