This is not the same Gophers volleyball team that made the Final Four the past two seasons.
Maybe that’s an obvious statement, considering National Player of the Year Sarah Wilhite and the dominant middle blocking duo of twins Hannah and Paige Tapp graduated last spring. But that statement is not a slight to this incarnation of the Gophers.
In fact, this 2017 team has something coach Hugh McCutcheon hasn’t previously experienced, despite five previous seasons with the Gophers as well as gold and silver medals from coaching U.S. Olympic teams.
“We’re really committed, just every day in practice, we’re in here getting better,” senior middle blocker Molly Lohman said. “[Hugh] says it all the time, ‘I’ve never had a group that comes in each day and gets a little bit better each day.’ ”
The Gophers have needed that dedication to “incremental improvement,” as McCutcheon called it, en route to their NCAA tournament Sweet 16 match Friday evening against Southern Cal in Gainesville, Fla. Expectations were uncertain heading into this year with just four seniors on the roster. But how this team succeeded this year despite those challenges demonstrates how the culture McCutcheon has installed is finally settled into place.
Across all positions and in all four classes — from true freshmen to seniors — there is depth, and at least one standout player.
Freshman opposite Stephanie Samedy leads the team in kills with 465.
Sophomore outside hitter Alexis Hart is second with 433.
Junior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson is regarded as one of the best in her position in the nation.
Lohman is the team’s best server, best blocker and the team’s Big Ten sportsmanship award winner.
That leads to a combination of old and new: Samedy is making her tournament debut, while Lohman has lived through back-to-back Final Fours as well as not making the tournament her freshman year. Lohman said her first year, the culture of the team still was manifesting. But now she can tell not only from the results but also the increased fan support that this is how the program is supposed to be.
“If it was just a senior-dominant team, it would kind of be like starting over again with the freshman and everything,” Samedy said. “But knowing that we’re all all-around good in every class, I think that we’ll always be able to have that culture that we’ve worked so hard to maintain. So it will always keep rolling.”
That balance — while not the traditional recipe for success in the postseason, when upperclassmen usually lead the way — also has given way for another unique characteristic of this team.
“The leadership that we’ve got on this team, I don’t think I’ve seen it before. I actually haven’t seen it before in this program,” senior libero Dalianliz Rosado said. “Everyone could be a leader, no matter if you are a senior or a freshman. So everyone has a say in the team. We just work that way.”
McCutcheon stresses that aspect, Samedy said, that it’s a meritocracy and everyone has a role to play. That’s illustrated in the team’s practices, where if something isn’t going as planned, the group comes together to have a discussion about how to change that. And when the players step back out onto the court, Samedy said the mind-set and demeanor are completely renewed.
Those interactions take place on a smaller level as well, between just two players. Rosado, for example, has taken freshman defensive specialist Lauren Barnes, her heir apparent, under her tutelage.
“My freshman year, I think it was a little bit harder for me because I didn’t have anybody in my position that was a stronger leader,” Rosado said. “But now that I’ve got the experience, I know what she is probably going through. So I kind of have an idea and can guide her a little bit, which I wish I had.”
Lohman is excited to see where this talented freshman class can take the program. She said she wants to be in the Maturi Pavilion crowd in 2020, watching them work toward a national championship in their senior year.
Unless that particularly elusive trophy happens to come sooner.
“What’s important for this team is that the connections are real. It’s authentic,” McCutcheon said. “This team is very selfless and really invested in this idea that it’s all 18 of us that are going to get us where we’re going to go.”
Gophers volleyball NCAA tournament Sweet 16
5 p.m. Friday vs. Southern Cal, in Gainesville, Fla. (ESPN3)