Can Gophers volleyball get back to the Final Four?

Published 8:01 am Friday, December 8, 2017

By Megan Ryan

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

This is not the same Gophers volleyball team that made the Final Four the past two seasons.

Email newsletter signup

Maybe that’s an obvious statement, considering National Player of the Year Sarah Wilhite and the dominant middle blocking duo of twins Hannah and Paige Tapp graduated last spring. But that statement is not a slight to this incarnation of the Gophers.

In fact, this 2017 team has something coach Hugh McCutcheon hasn’t previously experienced, despite five previous seasons with the Gophers as well as gold and silver medals from coaching U.S. Olympic teams.

“We’re really committed, just every day in practice, we’re in here getting better,” senior middle blocker Molly Lohman said. “[Hugh] says it all the time, ‘I’ve never had a group that comes in each day and gets a little bit better each day.’ “

The Gophers have needed that dedication to “incremental improvement,” as McCutcheon called it, en route to their NCAA tournament Sweet 16 match Friday evening against Southern Cal in Gainesville, Fla. Expectations were uncertain heading into this year with just four seniors on the roster. But how this team succeeded this year despite those challenges demonstrates how the culture McCutcheon has installed is finally settled into place.

Across all positions and in all four classes — from true freshmen to seniors — there is depth, and at least one standout player.

Freshman opposite Stephanie Samedy leads the team in kills with 465.

Sophomore outside hitter Alexis Hart is second with 433.

Junior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson is regarded as one of the best in her position in the nation.

Lohman is the team’s best server, best blocker and the team’s Big Ten sportsmanship award winner.

That leads to a combination of old and new: Samedy is making her tournament debut, while Lohman has lived through back-to-back Final Fours as well as not making the tournament her freshman year. Lohman said her first year, the culture of the team still was manifesting. But now she can tell not only from the results but also the increased fan support that this is how the program is supposed to be.

“If it was just a senior-dominant team, it would kind of be like starting over again with the freshman and everything,” Samedy said. “But knowing that we’re all all-around good in every class, I think that we’ll always be able to have that culture that we’ve worked so hard to maintain. So it will always keep rolling.”

That balance — while not the traditional recipe for success in the postseason, when upperclassmen usually lead the way — also has given way for another unique characteristic of this team.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.