MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Gophers volleyball powerhouse has been built as a meritocracy.
With that standard, two freshmen will be counted on when second-seeded Minnesota (27-3) faces No. 15 Oregon (22-10) in an NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen matchup at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis.
Outside hitter Adanna Rollins and defensive specialist CC McGraw quickly earned spots among coach Hugh McCutcheon’s top eight players. Every player in that top group has played at least 94 sets this season, and the experience level is spread out among the two freshman, three sophomores, two juniors and one senior.
“It’s trying being good when it’s hard; that’s the true championship behavior right there,” McCutcheon said of the ultimate barometer. “Can you get it done when it’s difficult? When you’re not maybe playing your best or you’re down and you’re losing or you made a mistake … what are you going to do? How are you going to respond to those moments? That stuff matters a lot.”
Friday’s match is Step 3 of 4 in Minnesota’s route to reach the Final Four at Target Center next week. The Gophers swept Bryant and South Carolina in the opening two rounds last weekend. If they win Friday, the fourth and final step would come against the winner of No. 7 Nebraska (26-6) and No. 10 Kentucky (26-4) at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8.
The Cornhuskers, the defending national champions, and the Wildcats will play at 1 p.m. Friday at Maturi Pavilion.
McGraw, of Prior Lake, Minn., leads the team with 410 digs. Rollins, of Carrollton, Texas, is third on the team with 263 kills.
“They have showed that they are pretty seasoned competitors,” McCutcheon said. “They’ve been able to have great performances against a lot of great teams, and they have been pretty stable, so yeah, I think they’re in a good spot, helping us a ton.”
For Minnesota, McGraw and Rollins follow sophomore hitter Stephanie Samedy, who set the bar high for freshman contributors as the Gophers’ first freshman to be a first-team All-American. Samedy said she didn’t have expectations to play right away, only to get better; she has seen the same from McGraw and Rollins.
“There is a piece relative to, I want to say something like punching above their weight,” McCutcheon said. “They have to be able to handle the stresses and strains that go with this and manage all of that. It’s not just about playing volleyball. It’s about playing volleyball in front of a sold-out crowd against a top-10 team or a top-5 team, so having the emotional maturity or the competitive maturity.”
More than 5,000 tickets have been sold for Friday’s match, setting up another raucous environment.
Michelle McMahon, a Big Ten Network volleyball analyst, has covered the Gophers this season and is impressed by McGraw and Rollins.
“I had a conversation with Hugh McCutcheon about why (McGraw) won the libero spot,” said McMahon, who played at Michigan from 2008-11. “He just had high praise for how high her volleyball IQ is and her consistency, which as a freshman, to me, is one of the positions where it’s pretty impressive to step in and get to that role as a freshman and do as well as she can.”
Rollins simply passed McMahon’s eye test.
“I felt like she was really aggressive and really took no prisoners,” McMahon said. “And as a young kid, that is obviously an awesome mentality to have.”
McGraw said she knew coming into the season she had an good opportunity to be the Gophers’ primary libero, with Dalianliz Rosado graduating. She got a head start by enrolling at the U last winter.
“I think that really helped me out and throughout this whole season,” McGraw said. “I’ve been learning a lot. Just from the experiences that I’ve had compared to preseason and comparing it to now, I’ve had a lot of growth and I’ve learned a lot just from competing against a lot of different teams.”
McMahon said what McGraw and Rollins have been able to accomplish is impressive because of the volume of balls that come their way in their positions.
“To be as disciplined and not high-error in those two roles is really impressive,” McMahon said. “I think the most impressive is mentally, they don’t ever seem like things bother them, which would normally bother a younger player in that role.”