After an impressive run through the non-conference portion of their schedule, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers volleyball team is ready for a tougher test. Minnesota has dropped just one match this season and have their sights set on the top of the Big Ten standings.
Saturday night, the ninth ranked Gophers closed out the Dartmouth Duels with a straight set victory over the host Dartmouth Big Green. That win put them at 13-1 on the season, with a remarkable set record of 38-4. Head coach Hugh McCutcheon and his team now enter conference play when they host unranked Indiana on Wednesday at the Sports Pavilion.
Led by senior middle blocker Tori Dixon, the Maroon and Gold have forced their will on every opponent to date, except their lone loss to No. 19 Kentucky in Lexington.
The Burnsville native has already claimed two conference weekly awards this season and has a dominant .471 attack percentage. Dixon trails only Katie Slay of Penn State in the conference attack percentage standings. Her dominance, paired with an experienced and talented supporting cast, has Minnesota ready to make a deep run towards the school’s first ever National Championship in the sport.
In his second season at the helm for the Gophers, McCutcheon spoke about what to expect during the Big Ten season. “It will be a battle,” he said when I had the chance to speak with him Tuesday. “I think nine out of the Top 25 teams in the country are in our conference. That’s remarkable strength, so we would expect it to be a battle. It was last year and it will be again this year.”
With the majority of conference opponents ranked in the polls, the Maroon and Gold cannot afford to take a night off. If Minnesota wants to prove they belong in the conversation for the best team in the country, they will need to take care of business against whoever their opponent is.
Senior setter Alexandra Palmer has the tough job of distributing the ball around the floor with so many talented hitters around her. “It’s not challenging at times, then it is challenging at times,” she said. “It depends on our passing attack, it depends on who’s on, it depends on how the other team is setting up against us. I try to just set up the right hitter at the right time and get them going.”
Another senior that has been going for the Gophers is outside hitter Ashley Wittman. The Shakopee native and former Gatorade National Player of the Year is currently ranked eighth in career kills at Minnesota and will likely finish in the Top 5 by season’s end. She is ranked in the Top 10 in hitting percentage, kills per set, and points per set in the conference so far this season.
The trio of seniors for Minnesota will help lead their team into Big Ten play with plenty of leadership and ability. With just five upperclassmen total on the club, the Gophers are primed for a long future of championship quality teams not only at the Big Ten level, but hopefully at the NCAA level as well.