Junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman was an All-Big Ten and All-Region team selection as well as a second team All-American last season.
This season, she has only garnered honorable mentions in postseason awards.
But the captain’s apparent decrease in production isn’t because of a hiccup in performance.Wittman’s role on the team has just changed.
“I think Witt’s been a real strong contributor all year, and it’s a shame that that hasn’t been reflected, perhaps, in some of her postseason accolades,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “She’s making a lot of little plays that help us be good. A lot of the blue-collar stuff goes unnoticed.”
Wittman used to be the Gophers’ main hitter. In 2011, she had nearly 1,400 attacks — almost 500 more than the next-highest hitter. She led the team with 556 kills, averaging 4.48 per set.
In 2012, the Gophers offense became more spread out. Senior outside hitter Katherine Harms stepped up her game. Freshman outside hitter Daly Santana and senior middle blocker Dana Knudsen added consistent depth beyond Wittman and junior middle blocker Tori Dixon.
Wittman said the team’s diverse offense has helped it make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in West Lafayette, Ind., where it will play Purdue on Friday.
“If you have six key hitters on the team that can all put the ball down at any time in a match — I think you’re pretty unstoppable at that point,” Wittman said.
Wittman said it’s easier for opponents to focus on one strong hitter on a team, which is what she faced last season.
In the Gophers’ second-round match against Creighton, the Bluejays specifically concentrated on Harms and Dixon — the Gophers’ two All-Big Ten and All-Region honorees.
Creighton head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said she had hoped Wittman wouldn’t step up in Harms’ and Dixon’s place. When Wittman did, Berthal Booth said she won the match for the Gophers.
But Wittman said this is something every hitter on the team has done, and she appreciates not being the go-to option every time.
Dixon said she doesn’t mind when opponents heavily defend her because it distracts them from threats like Wittman.
“It’s good that other teams will pay attention, especially to the middle [blockers] in general, because that opens up a lot of things for our pin [hitters],” Dixon said. “I am completely fine with them getting all the kills as long as we’re getting the job done and our team is winning.”
Wittman ranks third in kills this season with 336 behind Harms and Dixon, but she has made an impact with a team-high 330 digs.
“I try to just be a leader and do all parts of the game — passing, defense, blocking, hitting, setting from the back row, serving,” Wittman said.
The Gophers haven’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since their 2009 Final Four run.
If the Gophers beat Purdue, they will face either Kentucky or No. 1 seed Penn State in the Elite Eight on Saturday.
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