Reusse: Cook needs more time to return Gophers to Big Ten’s elite

Keegan Cook was announced as Hugh McCutcheon's replacement to coach Gophers volleyball last Dec. 12. The credentials were indisputable with Cook's success in putting together a winning program at Washington.

This is a tremendous sport where a couple of key players can change the fortunes — and also seems one where the inside forces, i.e., parents, can be stronger in pushing college decisions than outside forces, such as club team coaches.

Throw in the ease of movement with today's transfer portal, and the situation for a coach, new or long time, can change in a hurry.

McCutcheon's early announcement that he would be quitting as Gophers coach after the 2022 season was intended to be honorable toward players, recruits and their families, but the question didn't really change in the volleyball world:

"What's that all about?"

Cook was up against it from the start.

On Dec. 26, Carter Booth, the magnificent 6-7 middle blocker, with three years remaining, was announced as transferring to Wisconsin.

On Jan. 12, invaluable outside hitter Jenna Wenaas was announced as transferring to Texas.

Those two stars couldn't be accused of going just anywhere: Texas is the defending national champion and Wisconsin has a big shot to win it this season.

Taylor Landfair, the Big Ten Player of the Year, was back. So was 6-3 setter Melani Shaffmaster, who has been playing with a balky knee.

Overall, cohesion has not been the same, and this isn't football in the Big Ten West, where mediocrity means success. This is Big Ten volleyball, where slippage in talent will send you quickly toward the second division.

And no Booth, no Wenaas is more than slippage.

The Gophers were outstanding in a first set on Friday night, then a strong Purdue team took over and won 3-1, with third- and fourth-set domination.

There were 5,000-plus in Maturi Pavilion again, fired up in that first set, but increasingly quiet later — and almost solemn walking out.

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The Gophers are 8-7 in the Big Ten and headed to Indiana for a Sunday match. They are 50-50 at best to keep the eight-season streak of NCAA tournaments going.

Cook's going to need a couple of more years minimum to put the Gophers back in the Big Ten's upper echelon (top four). And with Southern Cal, UCLA, Washington and Oregon coming in next season, that's going to be tougher than it was for Mike Hebert and then McCutcheon.

Meanwhile, volleyball remains a good night of sporting entertainment at "The Pav,'' and with admirable athletes, including Lydia Grote, a 6-2 outside/opposite hitter.

She transferred after three seasons at California and with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

We had a conversation last week before a practice. I casually said, "Cal hasn't been a volleyball power, right?"

Grote paused, looked glum and said: "We were 0-and-20 last season."

It got gloomier later, when I did the checking.

Grote, from Burbank, Calif., was the leading hitter for Cal-Berkeley for three seasons — where the Bears' conference record was 1-61, and with a 55-match losing streak as she entered the transfer portal in February.

Grote's older sister Maren was a star for Cook at Washington. She's 6-4 and now playing pro volleyball. And also willing to give older-sister advice to Lydia on many things, including where to transfer.

"Maren kept saying, 'Just go to Minnesota and play for Keegan,' " Lydia said. "I said: 'I'm going to take my visits.' I made four of them, and Minnesota was the place I liked best.''

Cook said of the second Grote sister in his coaching career:

"Lydia had a journey at Cal-Berkley, one that I respect immensely — and how she dealt with adversity there, the player she turned into.

"I remember the end of last season, if you look at those last five matches for Cal-Berkeley, she was averaging 20-plus kills per match, losing in five sets, showing up the next day and doing it again. That was all I needed to know about her."

The Gophers now have five matches left in the regular season. They need a lineup full of that resiliency to keep their eight straight NCAA tournament appearances streak alive.