McCutcheon and Gophers head to NCAA Volleyball Sweet 16

In his first year as head coach of the University of Minnesota women’s volleyball team, Hugh McCutcheon has brought the Gophers back to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA volleyball playoffs. The team is making its fourth straight appearance in the Sweet 16, the first with McCutcheon at the helm.

Minnesota heads to West Lafayette, Ind. to take on the host, Purdue University Boilermakers, this Friday night at 6 p.m. CT. The Gophers received the No. 8 overall seed in the 2012 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament and are one of three ranked teams left in the region. No. 16 Kentucky and No. 1 Penn State are the other two ranked teams to join the Gophers this weekend in West Lafayette.

McCutcheon’s squad defeated Liberty University in the tournament’s first round in straight sets and followed it up with a three set to one win over Creighton University in the second round. The first two rounds for Minnesota were held in their home building on-campus at the Sports Pavilion.

The three Big Ten Conference teams in the West Lafayette Regional join three other conference teams, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The most for any major athletic conference remaining in the tournament.

Minnesota has never won a national championship in volleyball. For McCutcheon to strike gold this season in the tournament, as he did as head coach of the 2008 U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team in Beijing, he will most likely have to get through the Nittany Lions.

As the No. 1 overall seed, Penn State will look to return to the dominance they had before last season. The Nittany Lions won four straight national championships between 2007 and 2010 and looked to have a shot last season at a five-peat, before being defeated in the 2011 Sweet 16 versus eventually national champion UCLA.

It has been apparent this year that McCutheon’s coaching the past decade at the Olympic and national team level has translated into wins for the Maroon and Gold. The team has a great mix of leadership and experience and have already defeated the Boilermakers this year in the regular season.

Minnesota was the national runner-up in 2004 to Stanford — the deepest the school has gone in the women’s volleyball tournament. A deep run like that is possible, but McCutcheon and his coaching staff will need to be golden to make it through a tough remaining NCAA tournament field.

A lot of things will need to go right for Minnesota to get out of the regional. Defensively on the block they need to be elite. Purdue, Kentucky and Penn State all have dominant front-court players with high kill percentages on the season.

For the Gophers, the combination of Tori Dixon and Dana Knudsen at the middle-block brings leadership, power and high attack percentages. On the outside, junior captain Ashley Wittman will need to prove why she was selected the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a high school senior from Shakopee, Minn.

Wittman along with All-Region selection Katherine Harms will need to be aggressive at the net and serve well from the stripe for Minnesota to have a chance at the NCAA Final Four which will be held December 13th and 15th in Louisville, Ky.

Maybe coach McCutcheon is looking for redemption after taking silver against Brazil with the U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball team in London earlier this year but he can push the Gophers to the top of the podium.

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