Gophers make their way into NCAA Sweet 16 volleyball

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The Gophers volleyball team has spent this season in a state of steady growth – merging young players into a program with extremely high expectations while dealing with injuries and playing its second full season in 2021.

Players and coaches have repeatedly said that the goal is to play their best volleyball in December.

Well, look at the calendar.

In an NCAA Tournament second-round game dripping with history and pedigree, the No. 12-seeded Gophers routed Stanford in straight sets 25-20, 25-18, 25-17, advancing to the Sweet 16 in Madison, Wisconsin next week where they will face No. 5 Baylor.

They did it without All-Big Ten Libero CC McGraw, who missed his second game due to illness, and showed just how complete and complete this team can be.

Junior Rachel Kilkelly replaced McGraw for the second game in a row and was perfect in managing her 23 receptions while posting nine recoveries.

“I mean, it’s not the first time I’ve had to do this,” she said. “We work on playing a bunch of different people together in different groups. I think that’s what helps us in those times when we don’t have a normal lineup.”

Coach Hugh McCutcheon had a different take: “Don’t underestimate what Rachel did this weekend. It’s a great performance from her.”

She was not alone.

Minnesota was balanced and varied in its offensive attack and confusing in defense – exploiting Stanford’s height and power.

Stephanie Samedy finished with a team best 16 eliminations and her teammates Jenna Wenaas (14 eliminations) and Airi Miyabe (11 eliminations) were equally electric. All three targeted nuanced angles and varying depths. The Gophers hit .339 with 48 kills, while Stanford hit .164 — its season-low mark — with 37 kills.

Initially, it didn’t seem like it would be such a lopsided affair.

There were eight ties and one lead change as the score was 16-16 in the opening set.

“The start of this game was pretty impressive…both teams were hitting around .450 or .500,” McCutcheon said. “Everyone was waiting to see who was going to blink first.”

Miyabe provided the dust in Stanford’s eye.

The eldest Gophers, wearing a bulky brace on her right leg, returned to service and the game was never the same.

Minnesota went for six straight points in a dominant game streak that included two kills by Samedy and one by Ellie Husemann.

“Usually I don’t go back to rank and serve, so for me it’s really nervous every time,” Miyabe said. “Whenever I go to the baseline to serve, I just like to focus on… whatever I can bring to the team right now.”

This attitude permeated the list. Melani Shaffmaster had 36 assists and consistently put Wenaas, Miyabe and Samedy in explosive spots.

“We scrambled all night to reach them to try to figure them out,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “I just thought they played a really smart and efficient game.”

Now the Gophers travel to Madison to take on Baylor. A potential rematch with the Wisconsin No. 4 looms. Minnesota’s record against these teams this season? 0-3.

But, of course, on Saturday they were just 2-10 all-time against Stanford and 0-4 in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s really good to play like that,” Kilkelly said. “Our connection off the pitch helps us to be better on the pitch. I think that’s going to help us continue to be successful.”

Just at the perfect time of year.

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