The Minnesota Golden Gophers volleyball team finally is ready to have their name called when they will begin the weirdest season of their lives on Saturday. The entire 2020 year was skipped and the traditional fall sport will be played over a tight eleven week stretch in the spring. But the #7 ranked Golden Gophers are ready to take on an absolutely loaded Big Ten once again and earn one of a reduced 48 spots in the NCAA Tournament in April.
When the Gophers take the court on Saturday at the Pav when they host Michigan State, it will be an incredible 401 days between that match and the last time they were on the court at the 2019 NCAA Final Four semifinal against Stanford. After uncertainties into their season that kept getting delays further and further into the future, this team is ready to get back to competition and ready to make noise once again. Minnesota is ranked #7 in the national poll and was selected by the Big Ten coaches as predicted to finish second in the conference behind #1 ranked Wisconsin. It will take at least one victory over the Badgers, and several more over other highly ranked conference opponents if Minnesota wants to take back the Big Ten title for the first time since 2018.
Big Ten schools will play 11 of a possible 13 conference opponents this season in a series of two-match series. Minnesota will play two matches in back to back days at home against Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa while facing Maryland, Purdue, Nebraska, Ohio State and Northwestern on the road. The 11th and final series will be a home and home with your closest geographic opponent—so of course that means the Badgers. Minnesota misses playing Indiana and Rutgers this season...the teams predicted to finish 11th and 14th in the conference by the coaches, so it’s a probably four wins gone for Minnesota compared to some of the other schools. But you won;t hear any complains from this bunch. They just want to play.
Minnesota returns four key players from last year’s squad. A pair of Gopher All-Americans in middle blocker Regan Pittman and opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy both return and were both named to the Preseason All-Big Ten team earlier this week. The Gophers return junior All-Big Ten libero CC McGraw as well as outside hitter Adanna Rollins who finished third on the team in kills in 2019. The biggest hole in the Gopher lineup will be at setter. UCLA transfer Kylie Miller held down the spot in 2019 and when she missed several matches due to a concussion it was Bayley McMenimen who stepped into the role. She most likely will return to the bench this season as the Gophers have two new setters to step in, one another grad transfer and one a very highly touted freshman.
The grad transfer is Hunter Atherton who comes to Minnesota after two seasons with North Carolina, and prior to that a pair of seasons at Nebraska. Atherton started the last two years for the Tar Heels playing in 49 matches. The true freshman is Indiana native Melani Shaffmaster. A four year high school All-American and the #16 ranked recruit in the county, Shaffmaster would be a different type of setter for the Gophers due to her height. While recent Minnesota setters in Miller and Samantha Seliger-Swenson have been more in the mid five foot range, Shaffmaster looms high above them at 6’3. It could be a very different look for the Gophers.
Shaffmaster is just one leg of what was ranked the #1 recruiting class in the nation. A pair of other highly talented freshmen are expected to play large roles this season for Minnesota. The #1 overall recruit in the nation is outside hitter Taylor Landfair. The Illinois native was a three time high school All-American and was the was the youngest player on USA Volleyball’s 2017 FIVB 18U World Championship team. Joining her is another outside hitter in Texas native Jenna Wenass. The #3 overall recruit in the nation was a two time high school All-American and competed on the US U20 World Championships roster in 2019. Both players will need to work their way into the rotation that already includes Samedy and Rollins, but the future is very bright for the Gophers.
Other Gophers that saw action in 2019 that should fight for a rotation spot as well in 2021 include sophomore defensive specialist Rachel Kilkelly, senior outside hitter Airi Mayabe, and sophomore middle blocker Shea Rubright. Sophomore middle blocker Ellie Husemann played 23 sets as a freshman and could also see time, but she will need to compete with Maryland transfer middle blocker Katie Myers who played for the Terps for the past two season as a starter.
The Gophers start their season with a pair of matches at home against Michigan State. Minnesota defeated the Spartans 3-1 in East Lansing in the teams only meeting in 2019. Regan Pittman led the Gophers with a career high 19 kills in the match. The Spartans were 15-15 in 2019 and were predicted to finish squarely in the middle of the pack in ninth place by the Big Ten coaches. The two teams open up at 4PM on Saturday in a match that will be streamed on BTN+ $$, and then return for the rematch on Sunday at 3PM in a match that will be televised locally in the Twin Cities on Fox9+, and will also stream on BTN+. Additionally Saturday’s match can be heard on the radio on KFAN+ 96.7 FM and via I heart Radio.