The #7 ranked Minnesota Gophers volleyball team is back in action in front of fans for the first time in nearly 21 months this weekend when they kick off the fall version of the 2021 season. Minnesota returns nearly everyone from last season’s Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament Team, and brings in another highly touted freshman class. But let’s be honest, it’s the Stephanie Samedy show and the rest of us are all just watching.
The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, Four time All-American and last year’s Senior CLASS Award winner is back for her fifth season in the maroon and gold. As Samedy goes, so goes the Gophers. She leads a fifth year class that also includes outside/opposite hitter Airi Mibaye and middle blocker Katie Meyers. Missing from that group is fellow middle blocker Reagan Pittman who decided to move on with her life and go into coaching rather than play another season. It’s unfortunate for the Gophers as the middle blocker spot is by far this team’s lone weakness and the one spot that could cost them a chance to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament. Joining Myers who only played a portion of last season due to personal issues in the middle will be Junior Shea Rubright who came in with high expectations a few years ago but has yet to really find her groove in the middle of the Gopher lineup. She also has been bothered by injuries and sat out Minnesota’s open scrimmage last weekend at the Pav. Behind them are little used Ellie Huseman from Eagan, and true freshman Anna Wolf from River Falls, Wisconsin who may be needed to see significant action right away.
If Wolf could have a freshman season like now sophomore Taylor Landfair did a year ago, the Gophers would be just fine with that. Landfair was a star as a freshman outside hitter earning honorable mention All-American honors and the north region Freshman of the Year. She earned preseason All-Big Ten honors this season along with Samedy. Another sophomore outside hitter who earned time as a freshman last year but is expected to fill a much larger roll this season is Jenna Wenas. Wenas earned more playing time as the year went on, and with the transfer of Adana Rollins to Penn State in the offseason, Wenas will be called upon much more often this season. Miyabe also earned more time in her senior season and will be called upon to play a larger roll this fall. Joining the outside/opposite hitter group is a pair of freshman who probably won’t make much noise early but will be ones to watch as the season evolves. Lauren Crowl is a 6’4 outside hitter from Eagan and Natalie Glen is a 5’10 freshman from Texas and the daughter of former NFL wide out Terry Glen.
The Gophers return a major core on the backline this season as well. Leading the way would be libero CC McGraw. McGraw who missed a good chunk of the spring season with injuries is back to 100% and will be a crucial member of the Gopher squad. Joining her will be junior Rachel Kilkelly who stepped into McGraw’s role at libero last season and played well. She will most likely move back over to her defensive specialist role where she excelled as a freshman. Joining those two on the backline will be freshman Skylar Gray from Maple Grove who was an Under Armor All-American in 2020.
Then there are the setters. Minnesota gets sophomore Melanie Shafmaster back after a fairly good freshman season. Shaffmaster was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team in the spring and earned Big Ten setter of the week twice and Big Ten freshman honors once last season. Joining her is senior Bayley McMenimen who played a decent amount her freshman season due to injuries but has seen less and less action over the past two years. It’s Shaffmaster’s job.
While it sounds like Minnesota returns a lot from their second place Big Ten season in the spring, so does the rest of the conference. Minnesota was ranked fourth in the preseason Big Ten coaches poll.
Wisconsin who lost the NCAA Championship game last spring to Kentucky was the unanimous #1 selection in the conference. They return three out of their top four seniors for a fifth season including middle blocker Dana Rettke who has the chance to be the only player to be a five time NCAA First Team All-American. Nebraska came in second in the poll and returns star Lexi Sun for a fifth season in Lincoln. Penn State was third, and made some noise on the transfer market this offseason gaining Rollins from Minnesota and First Team All-Big Ten Erika Pritchard from Maryland as well as a middle blocker transfer from TCU.
The conference is once again stacked in the national rankings as six of the top 12 teams in the preseason coaches poll come from the Big Ten.
Minnesota is set to play eight games against the other five ranked teams in the Big Ten, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Penn State both home and away and will host both Nebraska and Purdue in their only games of the season at the Pav. To go along with that the Gophers will once again play an incredibly tough non-conference schedule that includes five of their eight matches against teams in the Top 25. Minnesota will host #1 Texas, play at #7 Florida and #14 Oregon, and will play neutral site games against #10 Baylor, and #21 Stanford.
It all kicks off this weekend when the Gophers head to Madison for the Big Ten/ Big 12 Challenge to open the season. The Gophers will play #10 Baylor Friday night to open the season at 8:30 PM, and then will play TCU on Saturday night, while the #2 and host Badgers play the opposite opponents on opposite nights.
The Gophers are 2-0 against both teams with the most recent meeting being against the Bears in 2010. Baylor returns insane athlete and All-American Yossiana Pressley along with a pair of other All-Americans and got a transfer from national champion Kentucky who also was an All-American. They also lost in the Sweet 16 of last spring’s NCAA tournament. It will be a very good check to see where the Gophers are to open the season. TCU should be a much easier match for the Gophers as they struggled last season.
The good news for Gophers fans? Both of the matches this weekend will be on TV. In fact, Minnesota will be on TV a lot this season. A majority of the Gophers matches will air either on BTN, or on Fox 9+ here in the Twin Cities. The full TV schedule is below:
Friday night the Gophers and Baylor will air on ESPNU at 8:30, and on Saturday the Gophers and TCU will be the final game of a Big Ten Volleyball tripleheader on BTN at 8:30 as well.
The Gophers return home on Wednesday night to the Pav for the first time this season and will host #1 Texas live on BTN at 7:00. That’s one exciting few days of volleyball action.
Good luck to the Gophers as they look to get back once again to the NCAA Tournament and advance to the Final Four in Columbus, OH this December!