The Minnesota Gophers volleyball team kicks off the 2023 season Friday night at the Pav when they host the Big Ten/Big Twelve Challenge. For the third season in a row the Gophers and Wisconsin from the Big Ten will take on TCU and Baylor from the Big 12, and this season it rotates to the Gophers as the host. It will be another very strong non-conference schedule for Minnesota—one that was most likely created by Hugh McCutcheon who is no longer behind the Gophers bench. He retired after last season and the Gophers hired Keegan Cook away from future Big Ten foe Washington to take over as the head man of the Gopher program. Since he was hired last winter the Gophers have had to adjust to a new system and a new way of playing. Minnesota still returns several stars from last seasons team, but has also added several new threats from both their incoming freshman class and from the judicious use of the transfer portal. Minnesota also loses six players from the 2022 team split evenly between graduations and transfers. One key player even headed directly across the border to Minnesota’s biggest rival in Wisconsin. It will not be an easy season for Cook in his first in charge of the program, but the Gophers still have a ton of top end talent who will contribute and make this team one of the top in the conference, and therefore the country once again.
Lets start with the departures. Minnesota lost four seniors to graduation, none more important than libero CC McGraw. The Prior Lake native wore the opposite colored jersey on the court for five seasons for the Gophers and was arguably their best defensive player. She graduated as one of Minnesota’s all time leaders in digs and will be tough to replace—though as we will get to it the Gophers did a great job of filling that hole ion their lineup.
Rachel Kilkelly graduated after several years as a stalwart defensive specialist on the back line for the Gophers. The Shakopee native was not flashy but did her job well when she was called upon and will be a tough body to replace in the Minnesota lineup as well.
The next loss to graduation was middle blocker Naya Gros. The Michigan State transfer was a presence in the middle finishing second on the team in blocks per set.
Minnesota also graduated senior setter Miranda Wucherer, the sister of Gopher freshman McKenna who did not see much playing time.
Minnesota also lost three players to the transfer portal including a pair of stars who will be missed. All three ended up on teams on the Gophers schedule this fall. Sophomore middle blocker Carter Booth is the player who left the Gophers and decided to head across the border to Wisconsin. As a freshman she really improved as the season went on and earned First Team All Big Ten Honors and at 1.48 blocks per set ranked No. 6 all-time for Minnesota players, No. 1 all-time for freshmen and 10th in the nation.
Outside hitter Jenna Wenaas is another big loss as she went home and joined the defending NCAA Champion Texas Longhorns. She was a three-year star for the Gophers who just seemed to be jut missing becoming and even bigger star. Wennas ranked third on the team in kills per set and digs per set.
The final transfer was grad transfer middle blocker Ellie Husemann who headed to Northwestern for a fresh start. Husemann has had flashes of great play over her Gopher career but never really established herself as an every day player for Minnesota.
As we said earlier the Gophers return a large core of players who made an impact last season and who they hope will have an even greater role this year. The list starts with the obvious in 2022 Big Ten Player of the Year Taylor Landfair. Finally healthy after a pair of seasons where she struggled she erupted and became the best player in the conference as a redshirt sophomore and led both the Gophers and the Big ten in kills and points per set. Named a First Team All-American as well, Landfair is one of three Gophers named Preseason All-Big Ten by the coaches this fall. She was named the preseason #1 player in the conference this season by the Big Ten Network as well.
Joining her is senior setter Melanie Shaffmaster. Also named a Preseason All-Big Ten hone and one of the 20 best players in the conference by BTN, Shaffmaster will quarterback the Gopher offensive attack in her fourth season. She averaged 10.4 assist per set a season ago which ranked second in the Big Ten and earned her First Team All-=Big Ten honors.
Sophomore McKenna Wucherer is a player that Minnesota hopes can take the next step in 2023. She was good as a freshman coming in as the nation’s #1 ranked recruit, but needed some extra time to get her feet wet. She would end the season averaging 2.63 kills per set good enough for second on the team behind Landfair, but Minnesota would love to see those numbers rise even higher this fall.
Also returning for the Gophers this fall who saw some action last season but will hopefully step into a larger role this season are a pair of outside/opposite hitters in Lauren Crowl and Julia Hansen. Crown enters her redshirt sophomore season after playing in just 11 matches a year ago. Hansen played in just ten matches but shined when she had an opportunity to see the court.
Minnesota brings one returning middle blocker back in Arica Davis. Davis transferred from Ohio State after the 2021 season and entered the Gopher middle blocker rotation late in the season. She would play in 18 matches and record 1.23 blocks per set. She has th lead to start in the middle for the Gophers this fall.
Another returner who saw action in sports is senior setter Elise McGhie. She transferred to the U from Kansas after the 2021 season and backed up Shaffmaster last year. She would play in 28 matches for the Gophers and her serving was a threat Minnesota used to get several points. She is once again the backup setter and should see some time as a defensive specialist as well this year for Minnesota.
The Gophers return two more players who saw either no time or very limited time a season ago. Junior defensive specialist Skylar Gray played in just two matches last season while redshirt freshman setter Chloe Ng did not see any action in 2022.
Minnesota adds six new faces to their roster this season, three freshman and three transfers. The biggest addition was 2022 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Kylie Murr. The former Ohio State Buckeye star transferred to the Gophers this spring and will immediately step into the libero spot left open by the graduation of McGraw. Murr was a star for the Buckeyes and is one of the best shot receivers and passers in the nation. She was club teammates with Shaffmaster growing up and they now team up once again to try and help the Gophers get back to the Final Four.
Joining Murr transferring in is middle blocker Phoebe Awoleye from Loyola Marymount. She played her junior season there in 2022 after playing at Georgia her first two years. She earned First Team All-WCC honors a season ago after averaging 2.13 kills per set and 1.39 blocks per set.
Also incoming from the west coast is outside hitter Lydia Grote from Cal. Grote was someone Keegan Cook saw a lot of in the Pac-12 where she averaged career bests last season in kills (3.70), digs (1.49), blocks (0.62) and service aces (0.23) per set.
Minnesota added a three member freshman class. 2022 Minnesota Ms. Volleyball Sydney Schnichels is a key member as she comes in after earing All-State honors twice at Willmar. She was ranked the #20 and #22 recruits in the nation by the volleyball recruiting services and has the ability to step in and play right away for the Gophers if she earns it.
Joining her as an Under Armour All American is middle blocker Calissa Minatee. The Kansas City native was a USA Indoor Volleyball National Training Development Team attendee and was ranked the #56 recruit in the nation. She also has a chance to earn playing time right away in what appears to be a wide open middle for the Gophers.
The final member of the freshman class may be the one with the most potential, but the most question marks as well. Minnesota added Turkish libero Zeynep Palabiyik in early August but she comes with a ton of accolades in her young career. Palabikik is one of the best liberos in all of Europe and has played significant rolls the past few season for the Turkish U21 team and for several Turkish professional teams. If she lives up to the hype, she could be a star over the next few seasons for Minnesota and should easily slide in the Gophers lineup right behind Murr at libero.
So...How Will They Do?
Minnesota enters the season ranked #7 in the Preseason Top 25 poll and was predicted to finish third in the Big Ten by the conference coaches. The Gophers have a top three that rivals any in the nation in Landfair, Murr and Shaffmaster but will need to get some younger and less heralded players to stop up, especially in the middle blocker position. Minnesota once again will play an incredibly tough non-conference schedule with games against #15 Baylor, #1 Texas, #11 Florida, #9 Oregon, #3 Stanford and #18 Creighton taking up six of the eight spots in the non-conference schedule. The others are TCU who eliminated Cook’s Washington team in the NCAA Tournament a season ago, and High Point which is the only true breather on the Gophers schedule. But, the reason is to get ready for the gauntlet that is the Big Ten schedule where Minnesota will face #5 Nebraska, #14 Ohio State and #16 Purdue twice and #2 Wisconsin and #8 Penn State once. Minnesota’s game at Wisconsin could be one of the most anticipated and watched matches in the nation this fall as it will air live on Fox after the Vikings take on the Packers in Green Bay on October 29th. Minnesota will have 11 of their 20 Big Ten games televised with the other nine streaming on BTN+. Minnesota will have six of 8 non-conference matches on TV as well with only the Diet Coke Classic against High Point and Creighton on BTN+.
This Gopher team should compete for a Big Ten title once again and should be a shoo in to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament at the Pav. The Gophers major goal would be to earn a top 4 seed and home court advantage all the way to the Final Four which takes place in Tampa this season.
The Gophers get things started in the Big Ten/Big 12 Challenge at the Pav. Minnesota hosts TCU Friday night at 7 PM and then #15 Baylor at 7 Pm Saturday. Wisconsin will play the opposite team on opposite days at 4:30 PM and all four matches will air live on Big Ten Network. Minnesota defeated both teams a year ago in Fort Worth beating the Bears 3-1 on Friday and sweeping the host Horned Frogs 3-0 on Saturday. Both TCU and Baylor advanced to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament last fall with TCU defeating Washington before falling to Wisconsin in the round of 32 and Baylor defeating Stephan F Austin and Rice before falling to Louisville in the Sweet 16.
Minnesota is 4-0 all time against TCU and 4-1 all-time against Baylor with the lone loss coming in the 2021 season opener in Madison. Minnesota would get revenge eliminating that Baylor team in the NCAA Tournament in December.
Good luck to the Gophers as they open the 2023 season and the first under Keegan Cook Friday night.