Week after week, Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon kept shaking off questions about how good his volleyball team was. But starting Friday, they’ll find out as they enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 10 overall seed and will play host in the first two rounds of the tournament at the Sports Pavilion.
Coming in to take on the Gophers in the opening match of the tournament are the Radford Highlanders out of the Big South Conference and the commonwealth of Virginia. The Highlanders enter the tournament after winning their conference and finishing with a 24-9 overall record.
They’re led by Big South Player of the Year Rachel Weichecki, a junior outside hitter from Wilmington, Del. She finished the regular season just three kills shy of 500 on the year and plays solid defense on top of her league leading offensive ability.
Weichecki is very similar to what Minnesota has in senior outside hitter Ashley Wittman — an average sized outside hitter that does a little of everything to help her team win. The one area where Weichecki has the edge over Wittman is on the service line. The 5-foot-11 Highlander is more like Daly Santana of Minnesota with 51 total aces on the season.
Other players to watch out for on the Radford squad are outside hitter Cheyanne James and setter Jena Braden. James was second on the team in total points and Braden had over 1,100 assists and has regularly recorded double-doubles.
The Highlanders haven’t seen a team at the level of the Gophers yet and will have their hands full with Big Ten’s third place team. Meanwhile, Minnesota has played more matches than any other Big Ten team. They’re battle tested and have been playing some of their best volleyball as they enter the tournament.
Behind Santana and Wittman on the outside, the Gophers have seen tremendous play from All-Big Ten middle blocker Tori Dixon. Combine that with the play of fellow senior Alexandra Palmer at setter and Minnesota is primed for another deep run in the tournament if they can get out of their own building.
If Minnesota gets past Radford, they’ll take on the winner of Colorado and Iowa State on Saturday evening. The first round match against Radford begins at 7 p.m. CT. The Buffaloes and Cyclones will duel at the Pavilion before that at 4:30 p.m.
Minnesota’s second round opponent will hit the court at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Whoever the opponent might be, the Gophers must be on upset alert as just a couple seasons ago, No. 2 ranked Nebraska fell in the second round at home to a then unranked Kansas State team.