For most of the Gophers, losing the point would have meant an early exit from the NCAA volleyball tournament. For Taylor Morgan, the stakes were even higher.
The fifth-year senior from Blaine knew it wouldn’t help to dwell on the potential end of her college career last Saturday. With the Gophers one point away from falling to Creighton, Morgan needed to put all her energy into helping her team escape. First, though, she had to get her mind right.
“You don’t want to think about [the end], but it’s really hard not to,” she said. “Those are the times when doubt can creep in. You can’t think about, ‘The season could be over.’ So I tried not to let people see that.”
Her superior blocking — and a well-timed pep talk — helped the seventh-seeded Gophers rally and advance to the NCAA regional semifinals, where they will play 10th-seeded Florida on Friday in Austin, Texas. The Gophers’ defense again rose to the occasion against Creighton, steadying the team as it withstood two match points in the fourth set during a 3-2 victory.
Morgan urged her teammates not to give up hope, then delivered four key blocks in the late stages of the match. It wasn’t the first time she fought to extend her career. As a Gopher, the 6-foot middle blocker has endured four knee surgeries, grinding her way back after each one to remain part of a program she has loved for a lifetime.
Team defense has been a strength for the Gophers through much of the season, and it likely will be critical again this week. Morgan plans to be right in the middle of it, making the most of her final month in maroon and gold.
“Hard times and turmoil have shaped me into the person I am today,” said Morgan, a second-team all-Big Ten selection who led the Gophers with 14 blocks last weekend. “Life isn’t easy. When it gets hard, I’m going to take the bull by the horns and keep going.
“Being here five years has been pretty cool. Not many people can say they stuck it out. But all good things come to those who wait.”
The Gophers enter Friday’s match ranked eighth in the nation in blocks per set (2.85) and top the Big Ten in that category. Junior Regan Pittman is tied for the conference lead with 1.42 blocks per set, while Morgan ranks eighth with a career-high 1.23.
Morgan said the Gophers’ blockers have become “hungrier” as the season progressed. Coach Hugh McCutcheon cited blocking and defense as the difference-makers against Creighton, though it didn’t start out that way. Morgan admitted she struggled early in that match and had to remind herself to focus on fundamentals, such as getting her hands over the net.
In the fourth set, she and Stephanie Samedy combined for a block that denied the first of two Creighton match points. The Gophers’ wall at the net stymied the Bluejays’ offense through the rest of the match, with seven of their final 19 points coming via the block.
As they faced elimination, Morgan urged her teammates to each do one thing that would help the Gophers win the next point. Better yet, McCutcheon said, she showed them how.
“In some phases of her game, Taylor was struggling,” he said. “And yet, she was able to find a way to influence the outcome in a positive manner by doing things and saying things. Not just talking, but acting as well.
“We all know the saying, ‘Big hat, no cattle.’ She’s got a big hat, and she’s got some cattle back there, too.”
McCutcheon said Morgan has grown in her ability to match her words with action. She is a charismatic, energetic leader, he added, one who has demonstrated true commitment by her refusal to give up after her knee injuries.
“She’s shown us what it means to be strong for your team,” fellow senior Alexis Hart said. “For the younger girls, she brings guidance and advice, and everything comes from a caring heart. She’s a little bit of everything.”
Most of all, Hart said, Morgan has proved to the Gophers that she will always fight for them. After demonstrating it again last weekend, Morgan isn’t about to stop.
Should the Gophers beat Florida, a team they swept earlier this season, they would face the winner of Friday’s match between No. 2 seed Texas and Louisville in the regional final. A victory Saturday would give them their ultimate goal: a place in next week’s Final Four in Pittsburgh.
“I came into this year with the mind-set that we were going to do some big things,” Morgan said. “To do that, you can’t do anything halfway. I hope I’ve shown that playing as hard as you can should be an everyday thing.’’