Once again in 2021, the expectations are high for Hugh McCutheon’s Women’s Volleyball team. The Gophers reached the Final Four in 2015, 2016 and 2019, but have not yet captured an NCAA title. For a team to win a National Championship, a lot of things have to go right. Here are four things that must happen for Minnesota to bring home the title this year.
- Stephanie Samedy returns
This had to happen and it did. Samedy, last year’s Big 10 Player of the Year and 4-time AVCA All-American, has announced that she will be back for a 5th year of eligibility. Samedy led the Big 10 with 4.15 kills/set in 2020-2021 and became the first Gopher in more than a decade to record 20 kills and 20 digs in a single match.
Samedy, a 6’2” Outside Hitter from Clermont, FL, is one of the best 6-rotation players in the country. In addition to her offensive prowess, she is a critical piece to the Gopher defense. Last season, Samedy was 2nd on the team with 55 blocks and 3rd on the team with 176 digs. This summer, Samedy and fellow Gopher teammates CC McGraw and Melanie Shaffmaster were selected to train as part of the 2021 USA Volleyball Women’s Collegiate National Team.
- Learn and improve from the non-conference schedule
The Gophers 2021 schedule is arguably the toughest in the country. With 5 teams ranked in the Top 10, the Big 10schedule is challenging each season. The non-conference schedule is much more challenging this year than it has been in past years. The Gophers will face the defending 2020-2021 NCCA National Runner-Up Texas Longhorns on September 1st at Maturi Pavilion. Their non-conference schedule also includes Top 15 teams Florida, Baylor and Oregon, as well as the 9-time National Champion StanfordCardinal.
There is no doubt that the Gophers will be tested early and often in 2021. How will the younger players react? They must be able to learn and improve from any setbacks. Sophomores Taylor Landfair (6’5” Outside Hitter), Melanie Shaffmaster (6’3” Setter) and Jenna Wenaas (6’1” Outside Hitter) are all expected to make significant contributions again this year. They were limited to a 19 match COVID-19 condensed 2020-2021 season that included 5 Big 10 match cancellations.
- Find stability at Middle Blocker
Three-time AVCA All-American Middle Blocker Regan Pittman has graduated. Pittman led the Gophers with 105 blocks last season and was fourth in the Big 10 with 1.48 blocks/set. She led the team with 23 aces, provided 1.55 kills/set and a team best .290 hitting percentage. Pittman was also the emotional leader of the team. The Gophers have to find a replacement and there are several options.
Redshirt Senior Katie Myers and Junior Shea Rubright are the most experienced options. Myers is a transfer from Maryland, where she started in 30 matches and played in all 121 sets in 2019. She ranked in the Top 5 in the Big Ten that season in aces per set, blocks per set and hitting percentage. Rubright saw the most time on the court last season, starting in 12 matches and playing in 47 sets. She delivered 5 blocks in the regional semi-final match vs. Pittsburgh. Junior Ellie Husemann (Eagan, MN) and Freshman Anna Wolf (River Falls, WI) provide additional depth at the position.
- Earn a Top 4 NCAA Tournament seed
Unlike some other sports, there is a significant home court advantage to the Top 4 National Seeds in the NCAA volleyball tournament. The Top 4 teams host the Regional and have the potential to play 4 home NCAA tournament matches. The Gophers are very tough to beat at Maturi Pavilion. Since 2015, the Gophers are 82-6 on their home court as compared to 75-23 in away or neutral site matches. The road to the Final Four must go through The Pav!