The summer is blowing by and we are just three weeks away from the Tuesday of the first week of the 2018 Women’s NCAA Division I season (with matches starting later in that week). To countdown the final five weeks, we are previewing each of the top five teams in our Way-Too-Early 2018 VolleyMob Top 25 Power Rankings. To kick things off we talked with Heather Olmstead about #5 BYU three weeks ago, Kelly Sheffield about #4 Wisconsin two weeks ago and John Cook about #3 Nebraska last week. Today, we catch up with Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon about our second ranked team in the Golden Gophers.
Additionally, the podcasted version (that includes more than just talking with McCutcheon) can be heard here.
- #5 BYU (with Heather Olmstead) here
- #4 Wisconsin (with Kelly Sheffield) here:
- #3 Nebraska (with John Cook) here:
- #2 Minnesota (with Hugh McCutcheon) below:
Q: Last year you win 28 matches and made the Sweet 16 after two straight years of appearances in the Final Four. Has After tasting that high level of making the National semifinals then falling two wins short last season, was there any extra motivation this offseason?
A: In this business there’s really only one team that gets to feel really good about their season and everyone else finishes with a loss. To that end there’s no doubt that there’s motivation to at least try and get back to the National Semifinal. But if you look at the body of work, I thought 28-6 with the youth that we had was pretty good, not too shabby. I think you can see it both ways.
Q: A big class of freshmen joins the fold for the team. What are some possible spots we could see the youngsters in early?
A: For us the gym is absolutely a meritocracy; we don’t promise anyone playing time, we don’t promise people starting positions. We just promise everyone we’re going to invest completely in their development. It’s hard for me to tell you who’s going to do what, but we’ve got great kids and a lot of really talented volleyball players that are going to be competing for a lot of spots. It’s great. I think we’re in a good spot that way.
Q: It won’t be new to you coaching young players. Just last year you had a plethora of freshmen and sophomores. It seems like every year you have a young contributor at a high level. What is your program doing that allows the less experienced players to produce at such a high mark?
A: I have no idea because I only know what we do. We’re just fortunate to have some really talented young athletes join us. I think that the group that is here does a really good job of integrating people in. I don’t know if it’s quite mentoring, but the idea that the people here are really trying to help. We’re certainly happy that they can hit the ground running.
Q: Going into year four, what’s been the progression like for Samantha Seliger-Swenson?
A: I think she’s done a great job these three years, no question. She’s a wonderful setter. There’s a couple of things I think she’s worked on, to her credit, this last year or at least last spring heading into her senior year. One is just her all-around game; she’s always been able to dish the rock, but now she’s really accomplished on the defensive end. She’s been a great server for us but I think now she’s taken that to another level. And at the net, just holding her own at the net, I think for awhile blocking was a little frustrating for her but she’s absolutely honing that part of her game as well. Just to see her embrace the idea of becoming a great volleyball player has been great to see.
Off the court as a setter she’s obviously in a position of leadership, but taking the reins in terms of responsibility to help people coming in, help the team and do everything she can to help us win the next point. She’s been great and she’s growing and evolving. We love to see that.
Q: How much easier did she make the transition in year one for Stephanie Samedy?
A: There’s no doubt that as a hitter you get to be a little better if your setter is good, so those two are absolutely connected. With Sam(antha Seliger-Swenson) you know you’re going to get something pretty similar every time – her location and ability to keep you in rhythm is really good – so I think that makes it easier because you’re just worried about shot selection and not really worried about having to go chase it too much.
The other thing that Sam is really good at is – and I think this is a quality that not all setters have – she’s very intuitive about setting the ball that the hitter needs versus just setting the ball that she wants to set. I think there’s some setters that will say ‘here’s a go and whatever you want to do with it that’s up to you’, but Sam can see that you’re a little bit late or a little bit early so she can make it a little faster or hang it up a little bit or do whatever she can do to really get you the right swing. That’s been great for Stephanie as well.
Q: Speaking of Samedy, what do you envision her growth as both for this season and as her volleyball career continues?
A: She’s a very special athlete and a special person – as good of a person as she is on the court she’s even better off of it. The thing to me that’s remarkable is her commitment to improving. She’s absolutely low ego, high output. She just wants to get better and is very driven but also really humble and about the team.
Q: Seliger-Swenson and Samedy may steal the headlines, but Alexis Hart is vital to your success as well. What does she add to the dynamic of your team?
A: She’s big time. She played a big chunk of her club career as a middle blocker and in the last couple of seasons moved outside. So there’s been a lot of learning for her. Offensively she’s been dominant at times in our league, which is saying something because I think the Big Ten is pretty rigorous. She can jump high and has a great arm, but she’s also adding to that with a very good back-court presence and her underhand skills have gotten significantly better. I see a big future for Alexis Hart.
Q: You’ll have a transfer newcomer in Claire Sheehan out of Iowa. What does she provide to the team?
A: Claire is a competitor and she’s just a really good volleyball player. Those outside hitting positions are going to be tough – there’s a lot of good players battling for spots. There’s Claire, there’s Adanna Rollins – an athlete out of Texas – Jasymyn Martin, who’s been here for a year already. There’s a lot of good competition for those spots and I’m excited to see where that leads to.
Q: Five starters are back, so I’m sure that makes life a bit easier, but what are some spots or roles that you’re still trying to iron out and foresee tight competition for?
A: A lot of it is still up for grabs. I tell people all the time the way we choose to run our gym is absolutely a meritocracy – we don’t promise anyone starting positions or playing time, we just promise everyone we are going to invest completely in their development and people have the right to earn it.
It’s not a mercenary thing, it’s just by your efforts if you work hard you can change your stars. I think that’s healthy and I think that’s really important for creating a high functioning team. I’m just excited to see how it all plays out. Spring was great for us. I thought we worked really hard; I thought the work rate was great and the commitment to change and learning was as good as its ever been here. There’s going to be a lot of good players in the gym and we will see how it all unfolds.
Q: What would you say your team’s biggest strength in 2018 is going to be?
A: I’m not sure. At least right now after the spring we showed that we’ve got some good balance across all the phases of the game. There’s some things we want to do a lot better than last year, primarily on the defensive end but we will wait and see.
Q: How would this team compare to some of the past teams you’ve had with the Golden Gophers?
A: It’s a little bit different, I think. It’s still a relatively young team but the overall dips and strengths 1-18, we’ve never had a group like this before. So it’s going to be great to be in the gym; I think there’s going to be a lot of wonderful days of practice ahead of us and I think that will lead to a few good matches as well.
Q: What are you working hard on to get better than your 2017 team that you think will give you the best chance at achieving your goals in 2018?
A: Our ability to be successful in first contact is going to matter a lot. Can we hit a good serve in the court, can we pass well enough to run the offense we want to run and then our ability to side out and manage the transition part of the game. I think if we’re successful in those phases I think it will help us be successful in the end.