The NCAA Championships are familiar territory for the Gophers volleyball team. For Minnesota, the No. 3 overall seed, this is the team’s sixth consecutive postseason appearance.
But this season, played during the pandemic, the tournament looks entirely different. The typical 64-team field has been reduced to 48, with all games being played in Omaha, Neb., at the CHI Health Center.
The Gophers, who have arrived in Omaha for the tournament, still haven’t taken the court as they’ve been COVID testing their way into the tournament bubble.
“Yeah, it’s really unique, but you’ve got to commend the organizers for putting this together and trying to do it in a way that, as best as possible, ensures athletes’ safety,” Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “We’ll compensate and adjust and figure it out as we go along, but it’s going to be unlike anything else we’ve ever done, that’s for sure.”
The Gophers won’t see the court until Thursday, the same day they’re slated to play the winner of Wednesday’s first-round match between Georgia Tech and Lipscomb. Minnesota (15-2) received a first-round bye.
“It’s a little bit different, but I don’t think these are insurmountable challenges. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re just going to go play volleyball, and that’s something we do most days,” McCutcheon said. “I don’t think we’ll have forgotten how to play or compete. We’ll look forward to getting on the court Thursday, and away we go.”
Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding the tournament, the nature of the event itself won’t come as any surprise. The Gophers return nine members of last season’s squad that made it all the way to the Final Four in the fall of 2019, headlined by senior Stephanie Samedy, who recently was named both the Big Ten and AVCA North Region Player of the Year.
Samedy has led the Maroon and Gold in kills in each of her four seasons with the program and posted a Big Ten-best 4.11 kills per set in 2021. Along with Samedy’s offensive production, junior outside hitter Adanna Rollins noted Samedy’s ability to lead by example. Samedy said that comes down to being an “open book.”
“As a senior, along with my fellow seniors, I think we’re just trying to lead by example, trying to be the best on and off the court. When it comes to academics, when it comes to doing the things we need to do to keep the team safe in the bubble,” Samedy said. “I think leading by example and just sharing what we’ve learned from our years here. Because it can be a grind.”
Samedy will look to continue to lead by example when the team takes the court Thursday, and McCutcheon will continue to rely on her for offensive production. But McCutcheon doesn’t expect her to do it alone. Along with Samedy, the Gophers have a number of weapons, including Rollins, AVCA North Region Freshman of the Year Taylor Landfair and first-team All-Big Ten middle blocker Regan Pittman.
However, in the backrow, the Gophers likely will be without libero CC McCraw, who hasn’t played since March 13 and has been wearing a knee brace on the sidelines. McCutcheon said they will “see how things go” for McGraw and the team is confident with the current group moving forward, and that group is ready to go.
“I’m super excited. I’m, like, really pumped. I think the whole team is really pumped,” Rollins said. “We’ve been waiting all year for this, basically. We’ve been training for this for so long, we’re all ready. Just put it all together and see how it goes.”