Minnesota volleyball counting on freshman Stephanie Samedy hitting close to home
MINNEAPOLIS -- The happiest of the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday night had to be freshman volleyball star Stephanie Samedy. Easily.
Seventh-seeded Minnesota dispatched Northern Iowa in four sets to advance to a regional in Gainesville, Florida, and Samedy was beaming about what's ahead. Gainesville isn't home for Samedy -- she grew up in Clermont, Florida, about 90 miles away -- but it cuts roughly 19.5 hours off her family's driving commute to see her play.
"A lot more family will be able to come because it's less of a distance, as opposed to a 20-whatever hour drive," Samedy said. "I'm super excited. Hopefully it will be a good turnout. I hope a lot of people come."
The Gophers (28-5) face Southern Cal (24-9) on Friday, with the winner meeting No. 2 seed Florida or UCLA for a berth in the final four.
Samedy has been the best of the five freshmen coach Hugh McCutcheon worked into the Gophers lineup this season, making All-Big Ten while leading the conference with 4.14 kills per set in the regular season. She and Wisconsin's Dana Rettke were the only unanimous selections to the Big Ten All-Freshman team.
A six-position player, the 6-foot-2 Samedy contributed nine kills, nine digs and five assisted blocks to the Gophers' attack on Saturday night. Libero Dalianliz Rosado leads the Gophers with 507 digs through the first two NCAA tournament rounds, but Samedy's 326 rank second on her team and 12th in the conference.
Florida recruited Samedy, but the Gators weren't among her finalists -- it came down to Minnesota, Penn State, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Samedy said she sought a change of scenery from her home state.
"I just wanted something different -- get out of Florida, experience the world a little more," she said. "Academically, I wanted a program that was strong all over across the board. I'm not sure what I want to do yet, but I'm getting close to one possibility. I wanted to go somewhere they had a lot of different options and were strong in each area."
Samedy's contributions helped the Gophers start 12-0, spend three September weeks atop the American Volleyball Coaches Association national poll and post an 11-match winning streak through October and early November. Sophomore outside hitter Alexis Hart and junior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson joined Samedy on the All-Big Ten team.
But the Gophers hit a rough patch late in the season, losing three of their final six Big Ten matches to Purdue, Illinois and No. 1 Penn State. McCutcheon made one significant lineup change going into the NCAA tournament, replacing inconsistent freshman outside hitter Jasmyn Martin with sophomore Brittany McLean -- a bold move considering that McLean played nine sets in two seasons at Minnesota. In essence, McCutcheon replaced one player with no NCAA experience with another, albeit one with more time in the program.
McCutcheon used McLean for two sets each in the Illinois and Penn State losses. Against the Nittany Lions, McLean had four kills and four digs while Martin hit -.182 with one kill and three attack errors. Entrusted with a larger role last weekend, McLean posted 13 kills against North Dakota in the first round -- three more than she had her entire career -- and nine more against Northern Iowa.
"She's earned it," McCutcheon said. "Every day we keep track of performance. Our gym is a meritocracy. The players that are playing at the level to earn the job earn it. That doesn't mean we have short hooks or anything. Brittany over time, certainly over the last six weeks, has played really good volleyball. She came in [against Penn State] and did a really nice job, and we felt very comfortable starting her.
"She's very steady offensively. We like that. She hits it in a lot, works the ball with some good range. She's good on first contact and also does a nice job blocking up there."
McLean credited her teammates with helping her manage first-night jitters. "At first I was pretty nervous throughout the day, but I have teammates to calm me down, especially a couple of them on the sidelines, taking you back and saying, 'Breathe,'" she said. "One thing on our team that we do a lot is focusing on our breath. That helped me out a lot."
Minnesota exhibited plenty of poise in beating Northern Iowa, which owned impressive victories over three top 25 RPI teams -- Big Ten champion Nebraska, Southern Cal and Iowa State. In most long rallies, the Gophers prevailed. Hart had eight of her 20 kills in the first set, senior Molly Lohman shared in eight blocks, and Samedy, McLean and redshirt freshman Regan Pittman were steady throughout.
"They've been really good at staying in control of themselves," McCutcheon said. "If you can control yourself, it gives you a chance to control your performance. Even though the adrenaline is flowing, they're generally pretty good at taking a breath and getting back to where they need to be before the next point."
Samedy especially. McCutcheon praised her early on for her steadiness and willingness to learn. She has given Minnesota its first dangerous opposite hitter since All-American Katherine Harms in 2012, and its best all-around freshman since future Big Ten Player of the Year Daly Santana arrived that same season.
With so much inexperience on the court, poise and trust will be critical for the Gophers to reach their third consecutive final four. Samedy can't wait to show that to a close-enough-to-home crowd.
"It's just genuine," she said. "Everyone really cares for each other and wants each other to do the best that they can. We're here to support each other any way we can. There's a lot of communication, a lot of honesty and trust within each other, and I think it really pays off on the court."
Here's a look at the complete weekend lineup for regionals.
State College Regional at State College, Pennsylvania
No. 1 Penn State (31-1) vs. Missouri (22-11), 2 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Michigan St. (23-8) vs. Illinois (23-10), 4 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Penn State/Missouri vs. Michigan State/Illinois, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Gainesville Regional at Gainesville, Florida
No. 2 Florida (27-1) vs. No. 15 UCLA (21-10), 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
No. 7 Minnesota (28-5) vs. No. 10 USC (24-9) 6 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Florida/UCLA vs. Minnesota/USC, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Stanford Regional at Stanford, California
No. 6 Texas (26-2) vs. No. 11 Utah (24-9), 9 p.m. ET, ESPN3
No. 3 Stanford (28-3) vs. Wisconsin (22-9), 11 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Texas/Utah vs. Stanford/Wisconsin, 10 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Lexington Regional at Lexington, Kentucky
No. 4 Kentucky (28-3) vs. No. 13 BYU (30-2), Noon ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
No. 5 Nebraska (28-4) vs. Colorado (24-9), 2 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Kentucky/BYU vs. Nebraska/Colorado, 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN