MINNEAPOLIS — The Gopher women's volleyball team is heading to Omaha for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, where they'll take on Utah State on Friday afternoon.
The team has faced challenges this year — aand some key losses to unranked teams in the middle of the season — but they're heating up at just the right time. That's the message head coach Keegan Cook is pushing: this team hasn't played their best volleyball yet.
And he's right — Minnesota has the pieces to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, despite entering the bracket unranked. Taylor Landfair, the 2022 Big Ten Player of the Year, was having difficulty passing and terminating through mid-season, but has hit over .200 in five of their last six matches. Defensively, the whole team has stepped up to make bigger plays in the back row, and Cook has become more comfortable making in-game adjustments.
"We can be a dangerous serving team, we can be a dangerous blocking team. Our opponent hitting efficiencies in some matches have been 100 or less in the back half of conference, so we certainly at times have shown the defensive grit to make things hard on people," Cook said during a Tuesday press conference. "There's a level of discomfort that everyone should feel with what our highest end volleyball is."
Players too admit that the season has had its ups and downs, but they're focusing on being good teammates and putting their faith in each other.
"We have a good bond right now and honestly that's the thing that matters to me, creating a family and having a really passionate relationship with everyone," said sophomore outside hitter McKenna Wucherer. "Bringing that out on the court, we play our best volleyball."
That was clear on Saturday when they played No. 1 Nebraska. Though they lost that game, they still managed to take a set off the Cornhuskers, putting pressure on their serve receive. Senior opposite Lydia Grote and Wucherer took some big, gutsy swings, especially in the third set. Overall, the Gophers are playing with more confidence than they have at any other point in the season.
Cook, though new to the Gophers, is not new to the tournament. He most recently led his previous team, Washington, to a Final Four appearance in the spring of 2021. The tournament, he said, is a formative place. It's a fresh start in many ways, and teams can develop and change over the course of three weeks. Learning accelerates with the intensity of the environment, and good players can turn into great players.
The coaching staff has been pushing for growth this entire season, and now, Cook said, it's time to let go and allow the players to show what they're capable of.
Their first test is Utah State, who won the regular season Mountain West Conference. It's a team that has elevated its level of play in recent years thanks to head coach Rob Neilson, who took the job in 2020. The Aggies run a 6-2 offense, which will test Minnesota's middle blockers to close their block, and will challenge the Gopher's defense to be on their toes for all three options to be in play in the front row.
"We're just going to expect the best they're going to give us on their side of the net, and we're going to hopefully play our best to match whatever they're going to give us," said senior setter Melani Shaffmaster.
Cook added the Aggies play good, clean, fundamental volleyball, which makes them formidable against any opponent.
Statistically the two teams have some similarities, each hitting at roughly the same percentage (.235 for Utah and .227 for Minnesota). They also hold opponents to a similar hitting percentage (.191 for Utah and .187 for Minnesota). But the Aggies are not as physical as the Gophers, and Minnesota's numbers are skewed, considering they're playing in the toughest conference in the country.
Potential rematch against Creighton
If Minnesota can push past Utah State in the first round, they'll likely face Creighton, assuming the third-ranked Bluejays can take down Colgate.
The Bluejays have won their last 15 matches, and tied for the Big East Conference title. They finally have Norah Sis back from an injury, and have terminal middles along with Big East Setter of the Year Kendra Wait.
The game would be a rematch of one of Minnesota's early season losses, when the Gophers dropped the match at home in a 5-setter. This time, they have the opportunity to do the same to Creighton, who will be playing on their home court.
4 Gophers take home Big Ten honors
The Big Ten announced its conference honors on Thursday morning, naming Landfair and graduate liberoto the first team, and Shaffmaster and Grote to the second team.
Landfair has notched over 1,000 kills in her career, and averaged 3.20 kills a set throughout the regular season. Murr is the second player in Big Ten history to reach 2,300 digs, and has recorded at least 10 digs in every game this season.
Grote is one kill shy of hitting the 1,000 mark. Shaffmaster has over 3,500 assists and 1,000 digs over the course of her career.
Note: The above video first aired on July 17, 2023
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