Six thousand miles away from the university’s Sports Pavilion, the Gophers volleyball team built something special.
They ate octopus, browsed crowded seafood markets and belted out karaoke as tourists in Japan. Inside the country’s National Training Center, they were international athletes training with Japan’s World University Games team.
After the March trip — nine days of embracing Japanese culture and learning how their top players approach the sport — the Gophers returned a changed team.
“Our Japan trip was a really crucial part in our growing up together,” junior outside hitter Sarah Wilhite said. “We were with each other all day, every day.”
The Gophers, coming off a disappointing 2014-15 year, hope the growth and their stronger personal bonds produce a more successful season, which begins Saturday against Texas A&M in Palo Alto, Calif.
A year ago, coach Hugh McCutcheon cautioned that the Gophers, then ranked No. 12 in the 2014 preseason coaches’ poll, might struggle more than people were predicting. The assessment from the coach, now entering his fourth season, was spot on.
The Gophers were out of the top 25 before Halloween and finished in eighth place (9-11 record) in the Big Ten. They missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
But the positive offseason — the bonds formed in Japan and a strong class of newcomers — has McCutcheon sounding more confident this August.
“I’m relatively optimistic,” he said. “I don’t know what that’ll mean. We’ll have to get out there and battle, but we’re going to learn some stuff quickly right out of the gate. So I’m excited to see how we do.
“Their understanding of what it’s going to take to be good has expanded. … So they’ve grown up a little bit there.”
McCutcheon will get an good early look at where his team, which received votes just outside the top 25 in this year’s preseason poll, stands this weekend. After Texas A&M, another receiving-votes team, No. 2-ranked Stanford is up next on Sunday.
“It will be a huge opportunity to go and prove that we can compete hard,” said Paige Tapp, All-America junior middle blocker and preseason All-Big Ten honoree. “I think finally we’re pulling all the pieces together to be the team that we can be.
“We have some pretty high goals, and I think we’ve evolved into the team that can finally compete on the level we’ve wanted to compete for a few years now.”
The team returns its core players, a strong junior class built of Tapp, Wilhite, middle blocker Hannah Tapp, setters Katie Schau and Erica Handley, and outside hitter Margaret Eggert. Senior outside hitter Daly Santana has played a major role for McCutcheon over the past two seasons. Outside hitter Alyssa Goehner and libero/defensive specialist Dalianliz Rosado each played important roles as freshmen last season and are expected to contribute more this fall. Freshman setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the 2014 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year for Hopkins, could be a regular right away.
Along with Seliger-Swenson, the Gophers added three other high-profile freshmen and a senior transfer from Notre Dame, Toni Alugbue, to help build what is now McCutcheon’s deepest roster at Minnesota. That has led to some competition in practice, but these Gophers that bonded on the other side of the planet seem better for it.
“We’re competing against each other in all the positions pretty much,” Santana said. “I think we’ve been working really hard and we’ve become closer as a team. That shows when we’re playing and practicing. It shows we’re connected.”