Gophers volleyball transfers soaring as defending champ Texas hits town

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

It is the kind of stat that careers and reputations are built on: Keegan Cook didn't have a player transfer in eight years as the volleyball coach at Washington.

But days after taking over the Gophers, he watched as two of Minnesota's best returning players entered the transfer portal and joined top programs — middle blocker Carter Booth at Wisconsin and outside hitter Jenna Wenaas at Texas.

If Cook was unaccustomed to losing players to the portal, he is showing an eye for finding players there.

The Gophers moved up to No. 5 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll this week and have a showcase matchup with Wenaas and the No. 7 Longhorns at Maturi Pavilion on Tuesday night.

Coming on the heels of two convincing wins over TCU and No. 16 Baylor, Minnesota has a quick turnaround against the defending national champion Longhorns. Texas opened the season ranked No. 1 and was shocked in its season opener, losing in four sets to Long Beach State.

Wenaas returns to Maturi Pavilion two days after Booth played there in a tournament for Wisconsin against Baylor and TCU. If it serves as a reminder of who left the Gophers, their own transfers have been making it easier to stomach.

Kylie Murr was a no-brainer addition at libero. A program-defining player for Ohio State, she was named Big Ten defensive player of the year last season.

Two other additions, middle blocker Phoebe Awoleye from Loyola Marymount and opposite hitter Lydia Grote from Cal, may have only been familiar to the deeply knowledgeable college volleyball fan.

That is about to change.

"I told them throughout training camp, you belong here, especially those who don't have as much familiarity with the [Big Ten] as Lydia and Phoebe," Cook said. "They certainly showed that. ... Pretty remarkable start to their careers."

All three are seniors — though Grote and Awoleye have another year of eligibility — with experience and high expectations. Their presence creates mutual benefits. They get to compete on a team that already featured players such as Taylor Landfair, Mckenna Wucherer and Melani Shaffmaster, and their additions mean the roster can compete with anyone.

"I have six months left of college volleyball, and I want to win a national championship," Murr said. "This team has it, and I know there are other girls on the team that want those same things. That was really important to me."

The first weekend of play gave a glimpse of how the three transfers mesh.

Awoleye was a revelation on defense against TCU and Baylor, finishing with 16 blocks. It is a small sample size, but she currently ranks first in the country with 2.29 blocks per set. She built walls with her teammates but was also effective on the solo block — seeking out opposing attackers, tracking their swings and shutting them down.

Grote started both matches and recorded 13 kills, which ranked behind only Wucherer (30) and Landfair (16) for the Gophers. But how she handled her role Saturday against Baylor gave a glimpse into how this roster can operate. Grote had two early errors, and Cook subbed in Lauren Crowl, who was excellent for two sets. Grote stayed on the bench until late in the third set. With the Gophers leading 16-11, she returned and recorded three kills and a block to help complete the sweep.

After leading Cal in kills last season, Grote knew coming to Minnesota would bring changes. She is not always going to be the focal point of the offense.

"That doesn't mean I can't play a good role on this team," she said. "I'm always a go-getter, always going to do the best I can for my team. That has not changed."

As for Murr? She did Murr things. High energy, high communication, high skill level. With 40 digs and 15 assists, she was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week on Monday. She considers herself a student of the game with a heavy volleyball IQ and a penchant for studying opponents long before the match starts. It's the kind of personality that can impact the entire team.

"We don't have just one answer," Murr said. "We have seven. And we have seven more on the bench. No one has to be their very, very best for us to win. I think if we're all just playing really good and we're together, then good things are going to happen."

Cook has created real depth — 11 players made legitimate contributions last weekend in beating two solid teams.

"If you don't give those people opportunities, you're never going to know, but adversity will find us," he said. "Whether it's [Tuesday] or in the future. You better have plan B, C, D and E."

The blending of all those plans will continue to be as important as the competition.