'Stay positive, test negative': Gophers volleyball set to open 2021 season

Stephanie Samedy recorded her 1,000th career kill earlier this month for the Gophers in a 3-1 win at Rutgers. ((credit: University of Minnesota))

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught the University of Minnesota volleyball team anything, it’s to take life and sports one day at a time and have a flexible mindset.

Both were stressed multiple times on Tuesday, as coach Hugh McCutcheon and returning All-Big Ten players Regan Pittman and Stephanie Samedy spoke with reporters. For the first time since Dec. 19, 2019, the Gophers have a match to get ready for. That was the last time they played a match, a 3-0 loss to Stanford in the NCAA Final 4.

The Gophers started workouts on Aug. 4 for what they hoped would be a 2020 fall season, only to have it shut down four days later. After several weeks of uncertainty, they’re back. Minnesota starts the season ranked No. 7 in the country and hosts Michigan State Saturday and Sunday. You can watch Sunday’s match on Fox 9+.

It’s the start of a 22-match, Big Ten only season. It’s better than nothing, amid COVID-19.

"We’re excited to get going. It’s going to be unique, obviously there are all kinds of challenges that we’re going to have to manage and deal with, just the different rhythm of all of it. Just the fact that we get to go out and play, I think that’s really cool," McCutcheon said.

It might be his deepest team in his ninth year with the Gophers. Pittman and Samedy both earned All-American honors last year as Minnesota finished second in the Big Ten.

Pittman played in all 118 sets for the Gophers at middle blocker, averaging a team-best 1.41 blocks per set, which was second in the Big Ten in 13th in the country. She had a career-best 27 solo blocks and 139 block assists. She also averaged 2.17 kills per set, and tied for the team-high with 27 aces.

Samedy, a three-time First Team All-Big Ten pick, led the Gophers in kills (353), kills per set (3.07) and attempts (1002). The six-rotation player also established 299 digs, 23 aces and 107 blocks. Also back is defensive specialist C.C. McGraw, a First Team All-Big Ten pick last season.

If that’s not enough, the Gophers brought in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, with three freshmen and two graduate transfers. It includes the top high school player in the country, outside hitter Taylor Landfair.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for the Gophers. There was no preseason, no scrimmages against an opponent. They got eight hours per week of practice and working out when the fall semester started. They did six weeks of 20 hours per week that ended Dec. 9. They came back on a new normal Jan. 2, and now it’s game week.

They don’t know what it will feel like or look like, but they know they’ll play this weekend.

"I think we’re all super jacked and excited. It’s definitely going to be a lot of emotions and physical demand to handle Saturday, but we’re all really excited and ready to accept the challenge," Pittman said.

They’re one of six Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25, and they’re behind traditional powers Wisconsin and Nebraska. The NCAA also reduced its tournament bids from 64 to 48, so they’ll have to get off to a fast start.

"We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re jumping right into the Big Ten so I think just being able to take it day by day, focus on one team at a time and just doing our best," Samedy said.

McCutcheon says a successful season will come down to staying positive, and testing negative. They’re the latest Gophers’ squad to open a season amid a pandemic, after football and men’s and women’s basketball all had stoppages due to COVID-19 issues.

As the cliché says, take it one day at a time.

"If you get too far ahead of yourself, it’ll do you in. We’re also just trying to get through today, stay healthy. We’re going to stay positive, try to test negative and protect our bubble as best we can and see what that gets us," McCutcheon said.