Including today, there are six Mondays left before the start of the NCAA Women’s Division I Volleyball season. To countdown the season, VolleyMob has begun a new series as we inch closer to late August. Each of the final eight weeks, we countdown the top 8 teams in our latest preseason top 25 poll and explain why their fans should have high hopes for their national title chances. So, with six weeks left we look to the team ranked sixth in our poll: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Bit-Too-Early Top 25:
Following back-to-back Final Four appearances, the Minnesota Golden Gophers lose some big names but still have what it takes to compete at the highest level and even win the National Championship. They will need to fill the voids of some departing talent though, as 2016 AVCA Player of the Year Sarah Wilhite exhausted her collegiate eligibility. Paige Tapp and sister Hannah Tapp, who won countless accolades during their careers, also graduated along with rotational defensive specialist Katie Schau (fourth in digs). If they can recover from their losses with some returnees and incoming talent, they will have another chance at a National Championship in 2017.
Although Minnesota loses three of their top four in kills, they bring back AVCA First-Team All-American and Big Ten Setter of the Year Samantha Seliger-Swenson to run the show. She not only ranked first in the nation in total assists (1,465), but also provided versatility with 301 digs and 70 blocks on the defensive end. She won’t have as much established fire power as last year to set the ball to, but she will have plenty of options. Outside hitter Alexis Hart returns for year two after being listed as an AVCA All-America Honorable Mention honoree. Fellow outside hitter Alyssa Goehner returns for her senior year, and should help on both ends of the court. Middle blocker Molly Lohman was also on the 2016 AVCA All-America Honorable Mention list and will be a senior in 2017. She led Minnesota in blocks and blocks per set (1.40), and although the team loses plenty in the front line, they should have what it takes from a physicality standpoint to compete with anyone in the country.
Still, even with talented players, it will be difficult to replace Wilhite on offense, but on the bright side Minnesota was able to work around losing 2015 star Daly Santana en route to another Final Four run in 2016. They’ll need options to step up beyond Hart and Lohman, such as some incoming freshman.
Head coach Hugh McCutcheon recruits with the best of them, and will have plenty of young options to choose from in 2017. They will have six freshman in the fall, with four coming in with High School Under Armour All-American standing. Stephanie Samedy, a 6’2″ right side, is ranked as the fifth best recruit in the country by PrepVolleyball and should help fill some of the vacancy left on the front line. Outside hitters Jasmyn Martin (16th) and Sydney Kleinman (44th) were also PrepVolleyball top 50 recruits and could come in to some immediate playing time. The other three commits (setter, libero and outside hitter) will likely serve as a backup/rotational role if they play this year. If they can get solid contributions from the youngsters, it will not only help the team in the future but also give Minnesota the talent to compete for a National Championship in 2017.
The six newcomers won’t be the only ones who can make an impact as a less known commodity. Minnesota has plenty of talent that has served in backup roles over the years who will look to breakout in 2017. For instance, Regan Pittman, a 6’5″ middle blocker who was a 2015 Under Armour First-Team All-American, redshirted her first year on campus in 2016 and is now eligible for the fall season. Outside hitter Brittany McLean was also on the Under Armour First-Team All-America listing in 2015 with Pittman, but played in just one set last season. Taylor Morgan, a former top-100 recruit at the middle blocker position, played in 24 sets as a redshirt freshman in 2016 and could be in store for a big season with the Tapp sisters gone. It may be difficult to pinpoint who is best served for a breakout year, but it’s a safe bet that someone will show improvement and bolster Minnesota’s already high-caliber roster.
One thing Minnesota will need to do if they want to win a title is improve their defense. During just Big Ten play, Minnesota ranked fourth in the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage (.205). A very good number, but one they will look to increase to the top defense in the league. It may seem like splitting hairs to search for improvement from being fourth best in a loaded conference at something, but to win a National Championship you’re going to be facing great teams on your path and will need any edge you can get. And they might just be better. Libero Dalianliz Rosado returns for her senior season after she had a team-best 511 digs last season. Defensive specialist Sophie Beckley also is back after seeing action in 31 sets. If she can replace Katie Schau, Minnesota should have a strong defense with Lohman’s block, Seliger-Swenson’s overall defense and Rosado’s digging ability. A stingy defense and an All-American setter is a great combination for a potential National Title contender to have.
A big component of the defense too will regard how well they serve the ball. It’s important to note that aces aren’t everything – a team could have a great serving match that keeps the opposition out of system, yet they don’t record a ton of aces. Still, it can give an inkling of how strong the serve is, and Minnesota ranked eighth in the Big Ten during conference matches in aces per set. They’d be 11th in the conference if you included the regular season. If they can improve their serve, it would help the defense, give them more opportunities on offense and assist in offsetting the 1,128 kills they lost from 2016 to departing talent.
The schedule will remain difficult for Minnesota. Besides the tough Big Ten, North Carolina, Louisville, West Virginia, Texas and Oregon State all loom in the non-conference slate. It will be a gauntlet for the Golden Gophers, but one that if they can navigate would give them great potential to be a top-four seed and to host the NCAA Regionals.
It definitely won’t be easy to replace what they lost, but on paper they have one of the nation’s best setters, a potentially great defense and many talented options to toss it to. With the great recruiting of McCutcheon, Minnesota has all the talent, height and skill they need. The question will be can they put it all together and get some impact from the freshmen and any breakout players. Minnesota has never won the National Championship, but they’ve been on the cusp many times. The Golden Gophers have appeared in the Final Four five times in the past fifteen years, including in 2015 and 2016, but have only advanced another round once and have yet to bring home the big trophy. Once again in 2017, they have high expectations and should compete for another Final Four and National Championship in the fall.