Up next for battle-tested No. 5 Gophers volleyball? No. 4 Nebraska

Melanie Schaffmaster was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week after the Gophers swept Michigan State in a pair of 3-0 wins to open the 2021 season. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

The University of Minnesota volleyball team is only eight matches into its modified COVID-19 season, and it’s already been battle tested.

The Gophers are 8-0, ranked No. 5 in the country and have had three of their past four matches go down to five sets. Minnesota got a pair of 5-set wins at No. 13-ranked Purdue two weeks ago. Last weekend a top-10 ranked Penn State team came to Maturi Pavilion and battled the Gophers in two matches, 3-1 and 3-2 wins for Minnesota.

The Gophers’ reward? A trip to No. 4-ranked Nebraska for a pair of Big Ten matches this weekend. Welcome to life in the Big Ten, where five teams are ranked in the top 25, and four are in the top 10.

"I think we’re in the thick of it here, but I do believe there’s some value having been in the belly of the beast a little bit. Having been tested and pushed, we’ve gotten some opportunities for improvement," Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "I think it’s a little bit like this life in the Big (Ten) right now. Lots of good teams, and every week is an adventure."

Also looming is a late March home-and-home against Wisconsin, currently the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.

The Gophers face Nebraska at 8 p.m. Friday, then get some time to rest with the series ending at 11 a.m. Sunday. But the last two weekends shows McCutcheon his team can fight through some adversity.

Since the middle of 2016, the Gophers are 16-2 in matches that go five sets. They’ve won the last five that have gone the full five.

"We try to define the moment, versus letting the moment define us. It’s probably a combination of things, probably we’re luckier than most. Maybe we gotta go to Vegas or something, I don’t know," McCutcheon said. "It’s a testament to the group that they believe they can manage those types of matches, that they can find a way to battle through."

Minnesota faces a Nebraska squad that’s 6-0, and has only dropped two sets this season.

What is McCutcheon most impressed by with the Gophers after eight matches? Their maturity, and ability to compete with composure. They’ll need both on the road against a top-five team this weekend.

"Their ability to stay in it and compete with composure is something that’s been impressive, especially when things aren’t going particularly well," McCutcheon said. "At times it’s been a little choppy but we’ve still been able to figure out a way through that."