The Big Ten season is officially upon us, and the Gophers volleyball team heads into conference play with a 6-2 record following five straight wins over nonconference opponents.
There were a few bumps in the road for Minnesota after their season-opening win against North Carolina. Following the win, the Gophers dropped two straight to Florida State and Texas. Instead of overreacting to the two early losses, they used them as opportunities for improvement.
"We take one game at a time, and if anything we see what we need to learn and improve on. We don't take it more as a loss, but things we can just work on," outside hitter Alexis Hart said.
Head coach Hugh McCutcheon wanted the team to be "battle tested" for the Big Ten season, and he knew playing top competition in nonconference would only accelerate the team's development.
"The main thing is trying to learn things early so that we're not all of a sudden in November and trying to figure things out," McCutcheon said. "It's knowing what we have coming with that conference schedule. The idea of trying to dance around that doesn't make much sense. I think you've just got to take it for what it is. If we're going to play good teams from week five on, let's just go and play good teams right away."
The Gophers hit their stride following the Texas loss. They returned home to Maturi Pavilion and took down a then-top 10 ranked Florida team. Following that win, the Gophers picked up two more against then No. 10 Oregon and No. 1 Stanford. The Gophers weren't quick to overreact to the wins either. They viewed the win against Stanford as a confidence builder but acknowledged it's a long season, most of which is yet to be played.
Minnesota closed out their nonconference season with a pair of wins at the Diet Coke Classic. They won a hard-fought match against Clemson before turning around with a dominant performance against Oral Roberts.
"It was robust the first few weeks, that's for sure. I thought they held up pretty well, and I think there was some really valuable lessons that we've learned and we've been able to implement," McCutcheon said of the nonconference season after the match against Oral Roberts.
Minnesota wants continued development throughout the Big Ten season. The Gophers hope to continue to play their brand of volleyball and make improvements after each outing.
"We'll just get back to work and keep trying to add layers to this thing and see where it goes from there," McCutcheon said.
The Gophers' Big Ten season starts this weekend. They'll hope to end Indiana's seven-game win streak Friday, Sept. 27 before taking on No. 15 Purdue the next evening. Purdue is on a six-game win streak of their own heading into their match Friday against No. 13 Wisconsin. Minnesota will look to keep its momentum going through the first weekend of Big Ten play.
"Ready or not, here it comes," McCutcheon said of the Big Ten season. "It feels like we've made some progress in some really key phases of the game. And undoubtedly we'll have more weaknesses exposed and more lessons we got to learn. We're not complete by any means. It felt like we got a good amount of work out of these first four weeks and we're looking forward to the next 10."