Scalpers outside the pulsating building wanted $50 per ticket, and the asking price on StubHub had soared to $140. Fortunately, Tabitha Captain bought tickets for Saturday’s Gophers volleyball match six weeks early, even if they were obstructed view, behind a huge gray pillar in Section 206.
Over in Section 201, at the jam-packed, 5,200-seat Maturi Pavilion, Ariane Hawkins’ family craned their necks to see around another gray pillar, ready for the day’s main event — No. 8 Minnesota vs. No. 1 Penn State — after shivering through the Gophers football team’s 31-0 loss to Wisconsin.
“We sat in the cold for three hours, and all I could think was, ‘I’m going to be at the Pav tonight, watching the volleyball, sweating,’ ” Hawkins said. “I could not wait.”
Minnesota has become a national volleyball hotbed, and the temperature keeps rising, with college programs thriving at all levels, fueled by a pipeline of in-state talent ranking among the nation’s best.
Volleyball is now Minnesota’s most popular girls’ high school sport, drawing more participants (16,222) last school year than track and field, basketball, softball or hockey.
When it comes to high-end talent, UCLA coach Mark Sealy said Minnesota is “definitely one of the top three to five states out there.” Texas and California are widely considered the best, but coaches are beating a well-worn path into Minnesota’s volleyball gyms.
“The good news is I’ll be looking there continuously,” Sealy said. “The bad news is I’ll be standing next to every other Top 25 team looking there also. Minnesota’s no secret.”
The word has been out for a few years now on coach Hugh McCutcheon’s Gophers, who reached the No. 1 ranking in the nation earlier this season. Brady Starkey’s Concordia (St. Paul) dynasty is aiming for its ninth NCAA Division II championship in 11 years — if it can just get past fellow top-10 teams from Southwest Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth.
In Division III, St. Thomas won the 2012 NCAA title, and Northwestern (St. Paul) advanced to the Final Four last season. Northwestern was eyeing a return trip until it was upset last month by Gustavus, another team filled with Minnesota-born standouts.
Meanwhile, five Minnesotans are playing for the U.S. national team, gearing toward the 2020 Summer Olympics — Lauren Gibbemeyer, Tori Dixon, Sarah Wilhite, Hannah Tapp and Paige Tapp. All five played for the Gophers, and all trace their success to the burgeoning Northern Lights volleyball club in Burnsville.
The local volleyball buzz will only get louder next year, with the 2018 Division I Final Four coming to Target Center. That’s a destination the Gophers have reached the past two seasons, with Wilhite and the Tapp sisters helping lead the way.
Those three stars graduated, but McCutcheon has reloaded with young talent. Minnesota is the NCAA tournament’s No. 7 seed and will host the first two rounds this weekend.
While many in-state players have landed with the Gophers, others have scattered across the country. Champlin Park’s Sydney Hilley, for example, ranked as the nation’s third-best recruit in 2016 when she signed with Wisconsin, where she made the Big Ten All-Freshman Team this season.
Eagan freshman Kennedi Orr is rated as the No. 1 recruit in the nation for the Class of 2021 and has already committed to Nebraska. Her sister, Brie Orr, was a top freshman at Iowa this season. Lakeville South’s Jenny Mosser ranked as the nation’s No. 11 recruit. She signed with Sealy at UCLA and made the Pac-12 All-Freshman team this year.
Before McCutcheon was Hebert
The secret of Minnesota’s booming high school talent already was leaking out by 1996, when former Gophers women’s athletic director Chris Voelz hired Mike Hebert, who had steered Illinois to two Final Fours and four Big Ten titles.
“Minnesota was already established as an important pin on your map,” Hebert said. “Particularly the Twin Cities area, there was really a lot of interest in the sport.”
Hebert built up the Gophers volleyball booster club and held free clinics for the growing number of club teams in the Twin Cities area. Under his guidance, the Gophers made the Final Four in 2003, 2004 and 2009.
Samantha Seliger-Swenson was a 7-year-old, watching on TV, when Minnesota made its run to the 2004 NCAA title game before losing to Stanford. She had a poster of that team, autographed by every player, on her bedroom wall. Ten years later, she ranked as the nation’s No. 8 recruit and knew she wanted to play for Minnesota.
“That was my dream,” she said.
Seliger-Swenson is yet another former Northern Lights standout, but that’s not the only prolific volleyball club in the Twin Cities. Two others are Minnesota Select (based in Maple Grove) and M1 (based in Bloomington), with several others such as Kokoro, Vital and Crossfire that compete at a high level.
In 2016, the top Minnesota Select team won the prestigious USA Volleyball Junior National Championship, knocking off Laguna Beach, Calif. Minnesota’s winning squad featured Hilley, Mosser, Jasmyn Martin (now a Gophers freshman) and CC McGraw (who will join the Gophers next season).
If there has been one adverse effect of the state’s growing volleyball prowess, it’s been the impact on girls’ basketball, especially in the age of single-sport specialization. Girls’ basketball had 12,012 participants in Minnesota last school year, or about 4,200 fewer than volleyball.
As an eighth-grader, Martin helped lead Bloomington Kennedy to the 4A basketball state championship game, earning all-tournament honors. She transferred to Hopkins and played basketball for one more season before focusing strictly on volleyball.
“I understood because she’s that good in volleyball, but she was also that good in basketball,” said Hopkins girls’ basketball coach Brian Cosgriff. “At some point, she was going to have to pick and decided to do it early. I supported her 1,000 percent on her decision because she wasn’t doing justice to either one.”
Cosgriff added: “It’s working out pretty well for her.”
Martin climbed to No. 16 in the national volleyball recruiting rankings and ranks fifth for the Gophers in kills (169) this season. She’s among the young players who’ve helped keep Minnesota ranked among the national powers.
“I think people forget, we start three freshmen and a sophomore,” former Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi said. “I don’t know what Hugh says, but I certainly didn’t expect us to be that good this year.”
The perfect fit
When Hebert retired in 2010, Maturi made his pitch for McCutcheon, whose wife, Wiz Bachman, grew up in Lakeville before going on to play for the U.S. national team. McCutcheon had coached the U.S. men’s national team to 2008 Olympic gold and was coaching the U.S. women’s team in preparation for the 2012 Olympics.
“My challenge with Hugh was not so much to convince him about Minnesota talent but more to convince him that this was the next step of his career,” Maturi said.
McCutcheon led the U.S. women to the silver medal at the London Olympics and then took over at Minnesota for the 2012 season. Three years later, Minnesota won its second-ever Big Ten title. At age 48, McCutcheon said he doesn’t aspire to coach anywhere else.
“You want to be at a place that does it right, that cares about student-athletes,” he said “We’re at a place where we’re selling out, and they’re scalping tickets for our games. I’m not looking to go build something again. I think we’re building something pretty special here.”