MINNEAPOLIS - Expectations and excitement are at an all-time high as the University of Minnesota volleyball team opens the fall 2021 season at Wisconsin Friday night in the Big 10/Big 12 Challenge.
There’s nothing that could make coach Hugh McCutcheon and players more happy than a season-opening match in late August. This time last year, the Gophers were wondering if they’d even have a season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The No. 7-ranked Gophers start their fall slate with five of their first six matches against ranked teams, beginning with No. 10-ranked Baylor Friday night. Four of those five matches are against top-15 teams. McCutcheon wants to find out right away where his team is at after finishing last year with a loss to Pittsburgh in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"I just think we wanted to play good teams. The rankings stuff, we don’t have any control over who is where. They’re all really good and that’s the best thing we can do,’ McCutcheon said. "Our goal is to be good every time we step out on the floor, but it’s not to win preseason, it’s to try to win the conference and try to be the last team standing. For those things to happen, if you’ve got spaces in your game, I’d rather find out in August and September than have to wait until October over November."
Minnesota has to focus on Baylor and TCU this weekend first, but the team is a week away from its first home match with fans since a 3-2 win over Creighton in the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 7, 2019. The Gophers got their first taste of what that will feel like last weekend, hosting an open scrimmage at Maturi Pavilion.
"The athletes battled and we were playing some pretty good volleyball, very happy with the way they played and it was great to have some fans in the stands. Kind of cool to have it feel a little bit like The Pav," McCutcheon said.
That first opponent to play in front of fans at The Pav? No. 1-ranked Texas. It should be a full house for an early non-conference match between a pair of top-10 teams.
"I’m really excited. I know that the fans give us a big rush and a lot of excitement. They’re very supportive and I just can’t wait to be able to play in front of them and show everybody what we’ve been training for," said sophomore Taylor Landfair, a First-Team All-Big Ten and All-America Honorable Mention pick last year after coming in as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit.
The Gophers are coming off finishing 16-3 overall, 15-2 in the Big Ten and falling short of their annual expectation of reaching the NCAA Final Four. But they have All-American Stephanie Samedy back, and CC McGraw is back after battling injuries last season.
There’s some unfinished business after last year’s loss to Pittsburgh, and it’s an understatement to say they’re motivated.
"It definitely was a little disappointing at the end of the season last year, but I think we’re going to use that this year to really fuel us and I think this group is really good," junior libero Rachel Kilkelly said.