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Young Gophers volleyball team takes on North Dakota in NCAA tourney opener

MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon knew his team would be talented entering the season. But how good Minnesota would be was anyone's guess.

"We didn't really know what (this season) was going to be," junior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson said.

There wasn't much evidence to suggest one way or the other. The Gophers appeared in each of the past two Final Fours but graduated the likes of Hannah Tapp, Paige Tapp, Sarah Wilhite and Katie Schau, who did much of the heavy lifting for last year's team.

There were a few quality returning pieces, no doubt, but McCutcheon was going to lean heavily on underclassmen this season, and there's never any guarantee of how that's going to work out. This season, for Minnesota, it's gone swimmingly.

Minnesota (26-5), the No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, opens its postseason at 7 p.m. Friday with a first-round matchup against North Dakota (30-7) at Maturi Pavilion. Despite a significant roster overhaul, the Gophers are back in their usual position — opening the NCAA tournament at home, armed with a top-8 seed and legitimate Final Four aspirations.

"I knew we'd be talented," McCutcheon said. "I didn't know if we'd be any good or not. It's nice that we can be both."

For that, the Gophers can thank their freshmen.

The Gophers have a slew of talented veteran players. Sophomore outside hitter Alexis Hart and junior setter Seliger-Swenson were All-Big Ten selections. Senior middle blocker Molly Lohman, senior outside hitter Alyssa Goehner and senior libero Dalianliz Rosado have played critical roles, as well.

But no top team has relied on freshmen as much as Minnesota. Gophers freshmen have combined to play 440 sets this season, easily the most among the top eight seeds in the NCAA tournament. For reference, top-seeded Penn State's freshmen class has combined to play nine sets.

McCutcheon lauded his freshmen's composure and "ability to manage the load."

At the forefront of this class is opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy, and All-Big Ten selection who leads the Gophers with 447 kills. Third on the team in kills (198) is redshirt freshman middle blocker Regan Pittman. Freshman outside hitter Jasmyn Martin, a Hopkins, Minn., grad, is fifth in kills with 169. Defensively, libero Lauren Barnes has been a rock in the back row.

All have been pushed into big roles in their first collegiate action, and all have answered the call.

"I think it's one thing to imagine what it is to compete in this league and to be at a program where the sport matters, not just to the university, but to the institution and the weight that goes with that," McCutcheon said. "I think they've done a remarkable job of just being able to just take care of what they need to take care of today, and not getting too wrapped up in the big picture."

But it's one thing to be able to maintain that approach in the regular season, and another to do it in the tournament. The postseason is different, and the Gophers aren't shying away from that.

"We're not going to be one of those teams that sits there (and says), 'Hey, it's just like every other match.' Because it's not, there's an air of finality of this whole thing," McCutcheon said. "You have to prepare them for the fact that there will be some emotional moments, and there will be some big moments, and it's really trying to help them to prepare for how to manage those and how to get through those, versus trying to talk yourself into the fact that it's just another day at the office.

"Now, we've still got to play volleyball, but at some point it gets big, and it's our job to help them through that."

The Gophers' veterans have attempted to impart some wisdom on the freshmen. "They kind of just told us to take it game by game and never take anything for granted," Samedy said. "Being in the tournament is a privilege and so just go out and compete in every match."

These freshmen are likely as prepared as you can be for the big moments. Samedy said she and her freshmen teammates often look back and reflect on their development and where they were at the start of the season, noting how "'it's crazy we're doing things we weren't doing months ago."

Said Seliger-Swenson: "The younger players have definitely grown a lot. Not just as volleyball players, but they've learned how to manage their emotions on the court and how to manage school and everything that goes along with being a student-athlete."

It's all led up to this. For the freshmen, the postseason provides another season of uncertainty. Just because they played well in the regular season doesn't mean they will in the tournament. Then again, it doesn't mean they won't.

"Just because you're a freshman, doesn't mean you have to play like a freshman," McCutcheon said. "The bottom line is they're good volleyball players. They've earned the right to be confident out there by the way they've trained and the way they've played all season long."