Questions swirled in the minds of the players and coaches on the Gophers volleyball team as they rolled a few hundred miles along the Eastern Seaboard in the middle of an early October night.
How had they reached this point?
They were traversing a dark space after losing in five sets at Maryland, which had never happened in program history. The team boarded a bus around midnight for the four-hour ride to Rutgers. They arrived in New Jersey in the early hours of Saturday morning. That night they lost to the lowly Scarlet Knights, and their season bottomed out.
Kylie Murr transferred to Minnesota for her final collegiate season, a six-month stop before a hopeful pro career. A decorated libero, she said at the start of the year that her goal was to chase a national championship. Period.
"I never even actually thought it was going to be hard," she said. "Never once did that really cross my mind."
This wasn't merely hard; it was existential.
It also has created something unexpected: a clawing, resilient Gophers team that has gone 7-3 since that lost weekend on the East Coast, placing it firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. The Gophers are 13-11 overall, fifth place in the Big Ten at 9-7 with four matches remaining in the regular season — all at Maturi Pavilion — culminating with No. 1 Nebraska visiting on Thanksgiving weekend.
The Gophers are accustomed to excelling. But in their first year together under coach Keegan Cook, with new transfers and new teammates, excellence hasn't been the norm. Matches are grinding, cohesion elusive, a team of grit not polish.
The thrill of this season has come in their response to every moment of adversity. After pointing fingers elsewhere, players started looking inward.
"Are we the problem?" junior Taylor Landfair asked. "Is outside life affecting us? Is the actual volleyball aspect affecting us? What is the big factor leading us to not have the success we should?"
Murr had former Ohio State teammates who transferred and had success elsewhere, playing on top-ranked teams. After wrestling with questions of why her season at Minnesota was a struggle, she found something deeper.
"I thought [losing] would drive me away, like at first, 'Oh, I'm done.' But now it consumes me," she said. "All I want to do is help these girls."
Lately the Gophers matches have careened like mad, two wheels off the road, hands gripping the wheel. They have willed themselves through electric sets that have come down to single points, and single points that have come down to finger tip glances.
They have lost crucial matches — twice to Purdue, once to Wisconsin — and rebounded every time. They have stared down what would have been crushing losses and made the only play to keep them alive.
Landfair with three swings at 23-all in the fourth set of a win at Northwestern, finally getting a kill off high hands. Melani Shaffmaster hitting a dead dove of a serve at 24-23 that squeezed into the back corner of the court to win the fourth set and force a fifth in a win at Indiana last weekend.
About that matchup with the Hoosiers: Indiana had lost at home once all season, to No. 1 Nebraska in four sets. The Hoosiers are one of these middle-pack Big Ten teams — three games separate fifth and 11th place — that are thrilling and maddening, full of talent and tactical coaching and the ability to push anyone on any night.
That the Gophers are also one of those teams, that they had to fight for their lives in Bloomington last weekend in one of the most tense volleyball matches you can watch, might be surprising, but should it be viewed as a letdown?
The Gophers reject that idea. It has been an emotional season, but not without perspective. Murr was talking to Cook after the losses to Maryland and Rutgers, both were sharing the crazy amount of texts they received asking if they were OK. A funereal atmosphere. Then Cook laughed.
"When you hit rock bottom, you're like, 'OK, so what now?' " Murr said. "I was like, 'Thank God he's laughing.' At some point you have to acknowledge it, laugh about it and move forward.
"If you sit there and continue to be miserable and drown in it, it's not going to be productive at all."
They are still chasing a tournament berth; they still believe they have a higher level to hit. Lineups are being jostled, reserves are stepping up at critical moments. But more than whatever the outcome is of this season, the process is changing them.
"We're on a team with high-level recruits and a high-level program and a lot of people haven't been through that, and good for them," Murr said. "People don't know what it's like to grind.
"I am happy to be a part of it. I have learned so much in it. Did I think this is ideally what my fifth year was going to be like? All this learning and growing? No. But the more I think about it, I'm learning so much more from this than if I was on the No. 1 team in the country."