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On Saturday afternoon, while their college classmates were lazing about under shade trees on the knoll and passing around beers on the sun-kissed front lawns of the frat houses on University Avenue, the Gophers volleyball team displayed its own spring renewal.

A healthy crowd stepped away from the gorgeous day into Maturi Pavilion to watch Minnesota take on Marquette, the third match of a busy spring for the Gophers and their only match at the Pav.

It was a chance to see a familiar group of players in a brand-new light. Much has changed since December when, for a moment, the wheels appeared to be coming off for Keegan Cook after his first season as coach.

In a matter of weeks last winter, his assistant coaches and friends Eric Barber and Kylin Muñoz told him they were resigning their positions to move back home. Taylor Landfair, a former Big Ten Player of the Year, transferred to Nebraska. Middle blocker Phoebe Awoleye planned to graduate, and middle blocker Arica Davis told Cook and her teammates she was transferring to High Point to be closer to home in North Carolina.

It was a lot to process in the dark months of winter. But this weekend, the Gophers were rejuvenated.

New assistants Pedro Mendes and Crissy Jones Schoonderwoerd paced the sideline with Cook and returning associate head coach Kristen Kelsay. They led a Gophers team that looked synchronized, adaptable and balanced in winning three of four sets in the exhibition against the Golden Eagles.

"It feels great," Cook said.

That feeling has been building since the team returned from winter break.

"They came back ready to, I wouldn't say defend the program but be a part of something bigger than themselves," he said.

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One of the biggest returns was Awoleye, who made the crucial decision to return for her final year of eligibility and was crushing on the block.

Julia Hanson will step into a much larger role this season with Landfair's departure, and she showcased her athleticism and all-around game, hitting an outstanding .520 and finishing with 15 kills. That was the same number as Mckenna Wucherer, who has stepped up her passing and serve game as she tries to become one of the top players in the Big Ten.

Melani Shaffmaster, an undisputed leader on the team in her fifth season at setter, was moving with ease after spending last season hindered because of a knee injury. The team is clearly emphasizing that Shaffmaster needs to connect more with middle blockers Awoleye and sophomore Calissa Minatee to diversify the offense — they combined for 11 kills on 33 attempts.

"I think both of them are pretty comfortable running behind now, even shorter slides," Shaffmaster said. "They have done a lot of work as the only two middles on our team to run those sets."

Minatee got some of the loudest gasps from the crowd with thundering attacks on the slide. But just as importantly for the program was watching Awoleye shut down Marquette multiple times on the block, a constant reminder of what they nearly didn't have this season.

There were other exciting signs for the upcoming season. Zeynep Palabiyik was everywhere wearing the libero jersey, a position the Gophers will need to fill following the graduation of Kylie Murr. Palabiyik, a sophomore from Turkey, was vocal, once screaming "Mine!" so loudly it echoed over the crowd. She also brought endless excitement. There was a moment when freshman Stella Swenson got a block and Palabiyik sprinted across the court to leap into her arms.

Swenson and twin sister Olivia played extensively in the fourth set as the Wayzata graduates got their college careers underway.

Stella Swenson is an instinctive, chatty and confident setter. She spent the afternoon gesticulating often with teammates and racing around the court.

"She is talking the whole time and saying random things," Shaffmaster said with a laugh after the match. "She said a couple of words I don't know what they meant. … I also don't have TikTok. That's a big loss on my part."

Those two, along with Chloe Ng and Elise McGhie, create a competitive and exciting collection of setters. Ng might have gotten the loudest ovation of the spring match when she went on a blistering service run in the third set.

Some things feel settled, the Gophers know what to expect from opposite attacker Lydia Grote, who was a revelation last season and feels primed to be one of the most important players on the roster.

But others remain up in the air. The roster is a little thin defensively on the back row with Skylar Gray backing up Palabnyik. The Gophers added middle blocker Kali Engeman in the transfer portal, a former Minnetonka standout who was playing at Georgia Tech, but depth at that position remains questionable.

Cook is already targeting the next transfer portal window, which opens May 1. There's little trepidation now because he believes his roster is solid and that gives him leverage.

"We're just not taking any more shortcuts. Everyone who comes into this program is going to have a long-term future for us," Cook said. "We're lucky to be in a place where we don't have to compromise on values. We can be pretty bullish about who we add to our team."

Of course, it was only a spring match, but the Gophers hit better than .350 collectively (something they only did once last season) and added 13 total team blocks (something they also only did once last season).

After a murky offseason of difficult behind-the-scenes movement, the vibe on the team was undeniably bright. In the end, isn't that what spring is all about anyway?