Gophers women’s volleyball fight hard in NCAA championship


Photo by Public Domain

,Jenna Wenaas, #2, goes up for a hit in a game on the route to the NCAA championship.

Gophers Volleyball is elite once again!

Coached by Hugh McCutcheon, who also led the 2012 Olympic Volleyball team, some of the team’s star players are CC McGraw, who runs the defense as libero, and Melani Shaffmaster, who makes all the offensive choices as setter. As hitters, Outside Jenna Wenaas and Opposite Stephanie Samedy are two players who make highlights by slamming the ball over the nets. 

Overall, the Gophers ended with a 23-9 record and in the regular season their record was 20-8. In the Division 1 class, they ranked 12th and in their conference, the Big Ten, they ranked fifth. The Big Ten Conference has been particularly successful in Volleyball with 8 of the 14 Big Ten schools making it to the sweet sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. 

In the third round of the NCAA Volleyball championships, the Minnesota Gophers played the Baylor Bears, ranked fifth overall. Minnesota walked into the match knowing that everything was on the line and they would have to put their best foot forward. After losing the first set, the Gophers came back strong and won the second set but then lost the third. Going into the fourth set, if the Baylor bears won, the game would have been over and Minnesota would have been out of the tournament, but if the Minnesota Gophers won, they would play another set for the win. 

Minnesota players brought their A-game and ultimately won the fourth set. Now, the fifth set was the only thing that mattered in the game. Everything depended on the last set that would only go to 15 points, meaning Minnesota would need to be hot right out of the gate. After a rough start to the fifth set, the Gopher women came back with a run of five points and tied the game. Minnesota used this achievement as fuel to bring the heat and made another run of five winning them the match. The Gophers beat Baylor in a nail-biting best of five with a 3-2 (26-28, 25-22, 20-25, 25-23, 15-10) ending. The final moments showed both teams, together, in a huddle in the middle of the court. 

“For me, one thing came through my mind, it’s just we’re not done yet,” Outside and Opposite Hitter Airi Miyabe said during a press conference after the Gophers win against the Bears. 

During the fourth round of the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota played their rival the Wisconsin Badgers. The game was tight, but Wisconsin beat Minnesota 3-0 (18-25, 24-26, 22-25). During Set 1’s last point for Wisconsin, a long and tedious rally occurred. Minnesota made some great digs with amazing hits to the other side. Gopher players made a miraculous save after Wisconsin Outside Grace Loberg hit the ball into the deep left corner. McGraw flew across the court and barely got the ball off the ground. From there, Shaftmaster pancaked the ball and Middle Blocker Katie Myers used her foot to kick the volleyball back over the net to Wisconsin’s side. While the loss against Wisconsin was a difficult and disappointing one, Minnesota played hard until the end and their performance was outstanding. In the end, the Badgers simply outplayed our Golden Gophers. 

After this season, some of the star Gophers were recognized, including Jenna Wenaas (Outside), who was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team. Both Airi Miyabe (Opposite and Outside) and Stephanie Samedy (Opposite) were named to the NCAA Madison Regional All-Tournament Team, with Samedy also receiving multiple other honors. Libero CC McGraw was named to the All-Big Ten First Team too, along with Samedy. Ten players on the Gophers women’s volleyball team were named to the Academic All-Big Ten, meaning they maintained a GPA of 3.0 or higher while off the court and in the classroom.

“Seeing how much effort and work the girls put into playing volleyball really inspires me to keep going and push myself harder to achieve those volleyball goals I want to meet,” Columbia Heights Volleyball Player Ahkeya Ford (10) said. “Seeing them work as a team inspires me to continue having a positive outlook on the sport and team bonding.”

This season’s run is another high point of the team’s year-to-year progress over the past several years. In 2014, the Gophers did not make it to the NCAA Tournament, but in 2015 they made it all the way to the Final Four before placing fourth in the Tournament. Then, in 2016, Minnesota made it back to the Final Four Semifinals. They lost to Stanford, who won the tournament, so the Gophers managed to place third. Since 2016, Minnesota has always had their tournament conclude during the quarterfinals, better known as the Elite Eight. The one exception was 2019, when they had a semi finals rematch with Stanford and fell again, placing third. Overall, the Gophers have come a very far way from not even making it to the NCAA Tournament in 2014. 

As with any sports team, Minnesota will be losing players this year due to impending graduation dates and, thus, running out of eligibility to play. Four new players were recruited on National Signing Day, namely Carter Booth, Chloe Ng, Julia Hanson and Mckenna Wucherer. Hanson is even from Prior Lake High School in Minnesota while the rest are spread across different parts of America and Canada. More players will be signed as the year continues.