The Gophers were playing uninspired, lackluster volleyball against Creighton on Saturday at Maturi Pavilion when true worry snapped everything into sharp relief.
Trailing 6-5 in the fourth set, Gophers All-Big Ten first team setter Melani Shaffmaster landed awkwardly, hollered and laid down under the net in the middle of the point.
As a trainer ran onto the court and kneeled over her, the Pavilion went silent as Shaffmaster wiped tears.
There were roars when she returned to the floor midway through the fifth set. But — in a feeling that has become common early in this searching season — those roars were silenced.
No. 14 Creighton defeated the No. 9 Gophers 25-15, 16-25, 25-20, 22-25, 15-8 as Minnesota closed out a grueling nonconference schedule with concerns about Shaffmaster's knee and worry over the cohesion of the roster.
Keegan Cook sat in the whiplash of the match and the first-year Gophers coach parsed it afterwards, focusing on the health and leadership of Shaffmaster.
"Certainly a scary moment, but nice to see her come back out in the fourth and in the fifth she said, 'Yeah I'm ready,' so we put her in," Cook said. "Melani is a lot of a lot — lot of character — not surprised to see that."
The senior has been wearing a bulky knee brace, something she attributes to an old high school injury flaring up. It had limited her movement but hadn't kept her from playing every set or setting the tone for a team searching for consistency under a new coaching staff.
While Shaffmaster returned, the search continues.
The Gophers looked completely lost at times — a team featuring some of the best talent in the country, disconnected from each other. They hit .103 in the first set and trailed 21-9. They let the Bluejays score 12 of 13 points during a run in the third set and trailed 20-7.
"You have to live what you demand of your athletes," Cook said. "That's what I'm thinking about: Are my behaviors right now really consistent? Or is their inconsistency a reflection of my leadership?"
The feeling among the coaching staff and players was facing top competition before Big Ten play would get them ready to compete every night for a conference championship.
It's hard to see them at that level, currently.
"Momentarily discouraged but not deterred," Cook said. "I believe in the character of these young people."
During a match that hinged on Shaffmaster's vulnerable resilience, character isn't under question. Plenty of others remain.