During the long wait for the volleyball season to begin, the Gophers kept their eyes on the future. Every practice and workout since August has been an exercise in delayed gratification, a step toward the day when they would compete again.
Now that it's finally here, coach Hugh McCutcheon is asking his players to recalibrate. As the seventh-ranked Gophers open play Saturday against Michigan State at Maturi Pavilion, McCutcheon wants them to focus tightly on each day, and on the details that will get them safely through to the next. Looking farther into the future would be folly, he warned, in a season overshadowed by a raging pandemic.
"If you start to get too far ahead of yourself, it will do your head in," McCutcheon said. "We're just trying to get through today and stay healthy. We're going to think positive, try to test negative and protect our bubble as best we can, and see what that gets us."
The ultimate destination is the NCAA tournament, which will start with 48 teams — down from the usual 64 — and end with the Final Four April 22 and 24 in Omaha. The road is paved with 22 Big Ten matches, in a format of two per week against a single opponent.
The Big Ten's decision to shift the volleyball season from fall to spring has kept the Gophers out of competition for 401 days, since their loss to Stanford in the 2019 NCAA semifinals. Redshirt senior Regan Pittman said they are "super jacked" to show off a lineup enhanced by heralded freshmen Taylor Landfair, Jenna Wenaas and Melani Shaffmaster. The team also added grad transfer Katie Myers, a first-team All-Big Ten middle blocker last season at Maryland.
The roster is loaded with mighty arms, Pittman said, and the extra practice has sharpened the defense. Over the past five months, she also saw the Gophers develop another essential quality: rolling with whatever curveballs COVID-19 dished out.
"We got together so many times to reinvent our goals and reset them, because it's changed so much," said Pittman, an All-America middle blocker and preseason All-Big Ten honoree. "… The biggest thing about our team is our ability to be flexible. It's not going to be a normal season, and we all know that."
The Gophers have been practicing on and off since Aug. 7. The extended preseason allowed them to integrate the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, and to devote more hours than usual to honing fundamental skills.
McCutcheon said the three freshmen already have made significant progress. Landfair, the country's No. 1 recruit, is a 6-5 outside hitter with all-around skill. Wenaas, a 6-1 outside hitter, combines power and range. They augment a group of hitters that includes Stephanie Samedy, a three-time All-America, and Adanna Rollins, third on the team with 306 kills in 2019.
Shaffmaster is perhaps the most intriguing newcomer. McCutcheon said the 6-3 setter "can flat-out dish the rock," and she adds a degree of blocking and offense the Gophers never have had at the position.
The 6-2 Myers ranked in the top five in the Big Ten in blocks (1.29) and aces (0.38) per set last season at Maryland. Another graduate transfer, setter Hunter Atherton, played two seasons at North Carolina and one at Nebraska.
"There's a lot of depth on the team," Samedy said. "Every day, you're trying to improve your game, because there are so many people that can make the play in our gym. It's great to face that kind of challenge in practice, to prepare us for matches to come."
That preparation will be crucial, with no nonconference matches to tune up for the rugged Big Ten. Four league teams are ranked in the top 10 — Wisconsin (No. 1), Nebraska (No. 5), the Gophers and Penn State (No. 9) — with Purdue (No. 13) and Michigan (No. 24) also among the top 25.
To get to the NCAA tournament, the Gophers also will need the discipline and luck to avoid any COVID-related absences, postponements or cancellations. It's a lot to think about, but McCutcheon said his team is ready.
"Who knows what we're in for?" he said. "It's going to be unique. Obviously, there are all kinds of challenges we're going to have to manage and deal with.
"It will be a little clunky, I'm sure. But just the fact that we get to go out and play, I think that's really cool.''