Jittery energy has been cackling around the Gophers volleyball team. Coaches can't sleep, can't wait to wake up, can't get the hype playlist just right for practice. Attackers are swinging like their lives depend on it. Words are being bandied about like couples therapy: communication, chemistry, reactions, harmony, marriage, catalysts, neutralizers.
It feels like the coaches and players have entered into a laboratory for interpersonal dynamics in athletics, and with good reason. Over the next five days, the Gophers will be tested at Maturi Pavilion. TCU on Friday, No. 15 Baylor on Saturday, No. 1 Texas on Tuesday.
The first few weeks of the season feature a run of top-tier competition, but lineups and roster combinations are a work in progress for Minnesota. Experimentation will be the only option for a team debuting four new coaches and six new players.
Welcome to the lab.
There is arguably no better hitter in the country than Taylor Landfair, the Big Ten Player of the Year last season. Her receiving and serve game look more well-rounded to go along with that fluid whip of a right arm, which led the conference with 4.35 kills per set. Mckenna Wucherer is aiming to ascend after a freshman season that she called "super stressful," due to injuries and personnel moves around her. Even with all that, she was second on the team with 2.73 kills per set and has a sneaky level of explosiveness on the block. "I don't think anyone saw the real me last year," she said.
Who will show up at opposite? Lauren Crowl could get her shot at 6-4 with a powerful lefthanded swing. Lydia Grote led Cal in kills last season, and the 6-2 senior transfer brings experience and precision on the attack. Sophomore Julia Hanson is springy, terminal and can play on the outside or back row. Her mindset on playing time? "Put me wherever you need me."
The first touch
Setter Melani Shaffmaster was first-team All-Big Ten last season and finished second in the conference in assists per set. But the offseason has been focused heavily on improving the Gophers' first touch on the return to get Shaffmaster in better position to dictate the offense. It helps that libero Kylie Murr, her old club volleyball teammate and Big Ten defensive player of the year, transferred from Ohio State for her final season.
Murr's goal? Build that back-row marriage through communication and endless energy. "I think they're honestly a little caught off guard," she said of the early impression from her new teammates. "I will do whatever it takes to compete." Shaffmaster will be at the center of whatever success comes the Gophers' way, and she's ready to set the standard for her teammates. "You came here for a reason," Shaffmaster said. "We're not going to screw around."
The middle block
How will Phoebe Awoleye, Arica Davis and Calissa Minatee balance the middle block after the departure of Carter Booth? It will start with hyper-athleticism. Davis transferred from Ohio State last season and finished second on the team in blocks. Awoleye, a transfer from Loyola Marymount, was just as good, finishing 19th in the country with 1.39 blocks per set. Minatee, a freshman out of Kansas City, had a fantastic offseason. All three are between 6-0 and 6-2 with leaping power and strong swings. They know if Minnesota wants to reach its highest potential, they all have to contribute. "We are not timid, at all," Davis said. "We're aggressive and uplifting of each other."
If there's one area to watch as an example of how new head coach Keegan Cook and his staff want the team to be more than their individual parts, it's the serve. They have focused on it all spring and fall: how serving the right zones over and over can destabilize an opponent. It doesn't matter if it's Landfair, Wucherer, Murr, Shaffmaster, Hanson or an ace sub like Elise McGhie: smart, aggressive serving will be the expectation.
What can it look like at its best? During 6-on-6 drills last week, Landfair hammered a serve on set-point that glided over the net like a projectile riding a frisbee. It crossed up Murr, who fell back as the ball hit her chest. She got up and jogged off the court with her new teammate, "What the hell was that, Taylor?" she yelled.
It was a nice moment of competition for the reigning Big Ten player of the year and defensive player of the year. And a reminder that, even if it's still being created, the Gophers have a chance to build a monster.
Big Ten/Big 12 Challenge
At Maturi Pavilion (TV: Big Ten Network)
Wisconsin vs. Baylor, 4:30 p.m.
Gophers vs. TCU, 7 p.m.
Wisconsin vs. TCU, 4:30 p.m.
Gophers vs. Baylor, 7 p.m.