Gopher volleyball, best team in town, heads into NCAA sweet 16
By Bruce Strand
Long arms, long legs, long ponytails, and a long list of achievements, that’s the line on the lanky, explosive Minnesota Gopher volleyball team.
Among pro and Division I teams, they are currently the best team in town by far, after wrapping up the Big Ten championship two weeks ago and rolling through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at home last week.
The Gophers, led by coach Hugh McCutcheon and Big Ten MVP Daly Santana, were seeded No. 2 in the country (behind Southern California) and take a 28-4 record into the NCAA Sweet 16 starting Friday. The Gophers face Illinois at 5 p.m. in Des Moines (streamed on ESPN3).
The Gophers had sellouts of 5,167 fans their last two conference games and the two regional games.
“Amazing. Walking out and seeing a packed house is just fantastic,” junior Paige Tapp said. “There’s nothing like the Sports Pavilion.”
It’s a largely homegrown team but two Puerto Rican players have major roles — Santana, the 6-foot-1 senior outside hitter who leads with 520 kills, and sophomore libero Dalianliz Rosado, who leads with 725 serve receives and 491 digs.
Otherwise the squad reflects Minnesota’s strong reputation for producing volleyball players.
Middle blockers are junior twins from Stewartville: 6-foot-2 Hannah Tapp and 6-foot-1 Paige Tapp, who have delivered 317 and 275 kills, respectively, and the top two kill percentages on the team with .332 and .328.
There’s also two Minnesota Miss Volleyball recipients in Sarah Wilhite, junior 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Eden Prairie, who has 209 kills, and freshman setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson from Hopkins, who averages 11.5 assists per set.
Alyssa Goehner, 5-foot-11 sophomore outside hitter from Lakeville, is an around-the-dial contributor with 120 kills, 513 receives and 226 digs. Molly Lohman, 6-foot-3 sophomore middle blocker from Mankato West, adds punch at the net with 159 kills. The only other out-of-state regular is Katie Schau, junior defender from Michigan, who has 256 digs.
Goehner helped Lakeville win state championships in 2010 and 2012, and Wilhite led Eden Prairie to the Class 3A state championship in 2011. Stewartville didn’t win a state title with the Tapp twins although they placed third and second.
The Gophers swept the Big Ten’s major awards as Santana was named Most Valuable Player, Seliger-Swenson was named Freshman of the Year, and McCutcheon was chosen Coach of the Year.
Santana and Seliger-Swenson were joined on the all-Big Ten team by Hannah Tapp, with Paige Tapp getting honorable mention. Paige Tapp also made Academic All-American.
The Gophers have qualified for the NCAA 20 times but missed last year with most of the same players. Everyone improved markedly this year and they added the outstanding setter who was the No. 8 ranked recruit nationally.
The Gophers clinched the Big Ten title with a remarkable comeback against Ohio State at home in the next-to-last game, losing the first two sets in overtime, then blitzing the Buckeyes in the last three. After wrapping up the conference crown, they hosted two rounds of the NCAA’s, routing an overmatched, low-seeded Jackson State team 3-0, then turning back Marquette 3-0 with just one close set.
The Gophers now face Illinois, whom they defeated 3-2 at home in conference play, on Friday, and if they win, might face another Big Ten rival as Penn State is matched with Hawaii in the other semifinal.
The Gophers lost their first two matches, to Texas A&M and Stanford in Stanford’s invitational, but have won 28 of 30 since then. They were 18-2 in the Big Ten, splitting with Penn State and Purdue, and finished 15-0 at home. In the Big Ten, Nebraska was next at 17-3, Wisconsin 16-4, and Penn State 15-5.
McCutcheon has coached the Gophers four years with a 103-31 record and three NCAA appearances, including a final eight appearance in his first year, 2012. The New Zealand native had an illustrious career with USA Volleyball before succeeding Mike Hebert as head coach after Hebert established the Gophers as one of the top programs in the country. McCutcheon is married to Minnesota native and former Olympic volleyball player Liz Bachman.