The Minnesota Gophers kick off the 2022 volleyball season Friday when they head to Texas for the Big 10/ Big 12 Challenge at TCU. Minnesota once again will play one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation before beginning play in the toughest volleyball conference in the country. When all is said and done, this Gopher team will be battle tested and ready to hopefully make another long run through the NCAA Tournament and end up in Omaha in December for the NCAA Final Four.
Who is Gone From 2021?
The most glaring hole missing from the Gophers lineup a year ago will be opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy. The Gopher legend exhausted her five years of eligibility and is currently playing for the US World Cup Team. Samedy was a four-time First Team All-American and a back to back Big Ten Player of the Year. No single player will be able to make up anywhere what production she brought to the Gopher lineup, wo it will need to be by committee for the Gophers in 2022.
Another key player who graduated was outside hitter Airi Miyable. She stepped into the Gopher lineup when Taylor Landfair went down with an injury and missed the majority of the 2021 season. Miyabe ranked third on Minnesota with 2.97 kills per set in 2021.
Two other Gophers also graduated and ended their collegiate careers. Middle blocker Katie Myers played in 30 matches in 2021, ranking second on the team with 1.14 blocks per set. The Maryland transfer stepped in and played a large defensive role in the Gophers NCAA Tournament run. Backup setter Bayley McMenemin also departs after exhausting her eligibility. She played in several matches in 2022 but did not make any significant impact.
The Gophers also lost a trio of transfers off of last season’s roster. Middle blocker Shea Rubright transferred closer to home after her junior season in 2021. The Yakima, Washington native played in 19 matches and 54 sets in 2021, tallying 0.72 kills and 0.83 blocks per set. She will play for Washington State this fall—and the Cougars will travel to Minnesota for a match in September.
Freshman Natalie Glenn say more action early in the season but seemed to fall out of favor in Hugh McCutcheon’s lineup later in the season. The 5’10 outside hitter will play for Long Beach State in 2022.
Fellow freshman Anna Wolf also departed after one season. Wolf was sparingly used and didn’t see a future with the team. She will play for the University of Houston in 2022.
Who’s Back in 2022?
Minnesota brings back eight players who were on the roster a year ago, of which six of the seven saw significant time and five were regular starters. The biggest returner is 5th year senior libero CC McGraw. The quarterback on the floor of Minnesota was an honorable mention All-American a season ago and was First team All-Big Ten. The Prior Lake, MN native enters the season ranked 5th all time in school history in digs with 1,554 and barring injury should easily end up #2 by the time the season ends. She is the key to the Gopher defense.
The Gophers have a pair of young outside hitters who will need to improve once again to pick up some of the offense lost from Samedy. Jenna Wenaas had a breakout season in 2021 earning 2nd Team All-Big Ten honors and finished second on the Gophers with 3.28 kills per set while ranking fourth with 2.70 digs per set. She will be one of the key offensive threats for Minnesota. The second outside hitter Minnesota needs to step up is Taylor Landfair. She earned a medical redshirt last season after playing only nine matches due to a core injury. She was a Freshman All-Big Ten performer in 2021 and was a preseason All-Big Ten honoree last fall prior to her injury. One of the best players in the nation in the class of 2019, Landfair has yet to make the impact the Gophers have hopes for, but if she can stay healthy in 2022 that opportunity is there to shine.
Senior defensive specialist Rachel Kilkelly is another huge piece of McCutcheon’s lineup that returns. The Shakopee native does all the dirty work for the Gophers. She is not an offensive threat but she was fourth on the team in sets played a season ago and in McCutcheon’s 4-2 or 5-1 rotation she comes into the back line often for Minnesota’s middle blockers and earns all the playing time she gets as an unsung hero of that team.
Junior setter Melani Shaffmaster returns after an up and down sophomore season. Shaffmaster played in all 116 sets for the Gophers a year ago but struggles a bit from her All-Freshman Big Ten Team pace in the spring. Third on the team in digs a season ago she needs to connect better with her outside hitters, and with a trio of new middle blockers with her passes for the Gophers to achieve their full potential.
Senior Middle Blocker Ellie Huseman is the lone Gopher middle blocker returner on the roster, The 6’3 Eagan, Minnesota native earned her first starts a season ago and saw her playing time increase in Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament run. She will have a tough fight for reps early in the season as two of the Big Ten’s other middle blockers starters have transferred into the Gophers roster.
Sophomore libero Skylar Gray saw action in just one match last season for Minnesota
The last Gopher returnee...isn’t really a full returnee at all. Opposite hitter Lauren Crowl redshirted as a true freshman in 2021 and will make her Gopher debut this season. The Eagan native was a High School All-American in 2020.
So Who is New in 2022?
The Gophers add eight new faces to their roster in 2022 split evenly between freshman and transfers. It was a top-ten in the nation recruiting class for Minnesota led by the #1 overall recruit in the country in outside hitter McKenna Wucherer. The Brookfield, WI native was a 2021 AVCA and Under Armour First Team All-American and the Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year. She was named the USA Today Girls Volleyball Player of the Year as a JUNIOR in 2020. She has been a mainstay on the US Under 18 national team heling win a bronze medal at the World Championships in Mexico last fall. She should immediately appear in the regular rotation for Minnesota and if all goes well could be the most impactful freshman in the Minnesota lineup since Samedy back in 2017.
Joining her as a freshman is a highly touted middle blocker in Carter Booth. The 6’7 Denver native is the daughter of former Penn State Star and NBA player Calvin Booth. Booth was a two-time Under Armour All-American selection and the No. 1 2022 recruit in Colorado, according to multiple recruiting outlets as well as being the 2021 Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year. Booth figures to potentially fight her way into a crowded middle blocker rotation, or potentially redshirt this season if the pair of transfers can earn a majority of the playing time.
Savage native Julia Hanson played for Prior Lake high school and was the 2021 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year. The 6’1 outside hitter Was All-State a year ago and most likely will be a bench player or potentially redshirt for the Gophers this season.
The final incoming freshman is setter Chloe Ng. The Vancouver, British Columbia native comes to Minnesota after earning BC High School Provincial First Team All-Star honors. She most likely will not see much time this season.
Minnesota also hit the transfer portal and brought in four players, including two of the top players off of the rosters of fellow Big Ten teams. The Gophers brought in a pair of setters to compete with Shaffmaster for the job, and also brought in a pair of middle blockers to try and shore up that spot in the Minnesota lineup. Two are grad transfers playing out their last season of eligibility, and two have at least two years left o play in the maroon and gold.
Joining her sister McKenna, the Gophers added grad transfer setter Miranda Wucherer to the team. The fifth year senior played previously at Northern Kentucky. Miranda played in 102 matches during her four-years at Northern Kentucky and averaged 1.15 kills and 5.77 assists per set and made the All-Horizon League First Team as a junior in 2020-21. She most likely is here to play with her sister and won’t see much time this fall, but can provide additional senior leadership.
The other setter the Gophers brought in is junior Elise McGhie from Kansas. She played a pair of seasons with the Jayhawks playing in 46 matches. She saw more time her freshman year where she averaged just over 8.0 assists per set and finished the year with 51 kills and eight service aces. She will push Shaffmaster for playing time and provides a very competent backup if needed.
Minnesota went into a Big Ten rival and took one of their starters. Sophomore Arica Davis started and played in all 33 matches for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2021, posting 1.53 kills and 1.28 blocks per set in helping the Buckeyes reach the Sweet 16. She would appear to have the inside track for a potential starting spot up front for the Gophers and has three years of eligibility remaining.
The fourth transfer is another middle blocker, this one from Michigan State. Naya Gros is a grad transfer and comes to the Gophers after playing in 107 matches and averaging 1.80 kills per set while adding 1.20 blocks per set over the course of her career. She also should feature prominently in the Gopher lineup in a three way battle with Huseman and Davis for regular playing time.
So How Are They Going to Do?
Minnesota is expected once again to be one of the best teams in the nation. They rank #5 in the preseason national poll and were predicted by the Big Ten coaches to finish in third place in the conference standings behind three time defending champ Wisconsin and Nebraska. Minnesota plays an incredibly tough non-conference schedule with five of their eight opponents ranked in the top-25 (Baylor, Texas, Florida, Stanford, Oregon) and a sixth, Washington State the top team receiving votes not in the top-25. The Big Ten is no easier with six teams besides the Gopher in the top 25 including preseason #1 Nebraska.
Minnesota gets a bit of a break on the Big Ten schedule as they only get to play two of those top teams in Nebraska and Penn State once this season—however both are on the road in hostile arenas and in their final four games of the season. They very well could determine the conference champion. Minnesota has an incredibly tough close to the season with their final four games on the road, and the final weekend sees them playing Ohio State in Columbus the Friday after Thanksgiving and then hopping a flight to Lincoln to close out the regular season against Nebraska the next night. All three teams could be top 10 teams at that point of the season.
The start of the conference season isn’t much easier as the Gophers open at Purdue which has been a very tough place to play for Minnesota of late before coming home to play the Badgers.
How About This Weekend?
The Gophers get started with the annual Big Ten/ Big 12 challenge this year hosted by TCU. The weekend has been in the news as of late due to some comments by fellow Big Ten participant Wisconsin’s head coach Kelly Schofield. TCU is only streaming their two games on the weekend leaving zero tv or stream availability for Baylor’s two matches against the Gophers and Badgers Friday and Saturday. The unfortunate thing about that is TCU should get destroyed by both Big Ten teams while Baylor is ranked #16 in the nation and gets both #3 Wisconsin and #5 Minnesota with zero media attention. It’s a shame that could happen to major schools in 2022, but here we are.
The Gophers open up with Baylor at 4PM Friday in a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 match in Madison. Minnesota would pull that one out 3-2 in dramatic fashion to advance to the Elite 8. They did lose to the Bears to open the season in the Big 10/Big 12 Challenge in Madison prior to that NCAA Tournament match. The Bears lost All-American Yossiana Pressley(thankfully as she was a Gopher killer), as well as fellow All-American Avery Skinner but still return a pair of All-Big 12 players in seniors Lauren Harrison and Kara McGhee, along with the highest-ranked recruit in program history, freshman Averi Carlson who was named the Preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Minnesota is 3-1 all time against Baylor.
Saturday the Gophers play hot TCU at 7PM in a match that will be streamed on ESPN+. Minnesota swept TCU a year ago in Madison and should be favored to do that once again. TCU has not made the NCAA Tournament in six seasons and was predicted to finish 7th in the Big 12 this season. The Gophers are 30- all time against the Horned Frogs.
Good luck to the Gophers in 2022 and here’s to hoping their season ends in Omaha!