For the University of Minnesota volleyball team, there's no place like home to finally win a championship.
And as they kick off the NCAA Women's Volleyball Tournament Friday night at Maturi Pavillion, the Gophers anticipate full home support. The semifinals begin Dec. 13, with the championship scheduled for Dec. 15, all at Minneapolis' Target Center.
"I think it's a big deal, I think it matters. Home court advantage is real," said Gophers head volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon. "There are probably distractions either way, but the fact that you are not spending time and energy packing a bag, and getting on a plane and getting off a plane and getting on a bus and all the rest of it. You can just stay in your rhythm, stay in the space where we train and compete, I think that's a good thing."
Minnesota's first match is at 7 p.m. against Rhode Island's Bryant University.
The Gophers are coming off their best conference record in school history. The perennially successful team has absolute dominance at home, going undefeated on their home court. With a record of 25 wins and three losses, the team brims with talent and heavy hitters.
"I think it's freaking awesome," said redshirt junior Taylor Morgan from Blaine who plays middle blocker. "I love every game, every time we go out there, practices, just seeing how heavy everyone hits and just how well ... all the range that every hitter has, it's just like wow."
Morgan's team knows the NCAA tournament. They've been to two Final Fours in the last three years, but have never won a championship. They reached the final match in 2004, but lost to Stanford. But they think this season is different. The Gophers are ranked second in the country and they had only one loss against a Big Ten opponent all season.
"What they did in the Big Ten this season is unbelievable, especially when you consider the depth in the conference, how many teams you have from the Big Ten in the tournament," said Vicki Friedman, who covers college volleyball as a contributor to ESPN.
Still, Friedman said the Gophers' region includes other strong teams like Nebraska and Kentucky, so getting to the finals this time is not a done deal, but that they have a lot of experience that has gelled with new talent.
"This is a new year and a different team and this is certainly what I believe one of the two best teams in the country," she said. "So while I think we can anticipate them getting to a Final Four, there are significant obstacles to getting there."
Morgan said strong chemistry carries them forward.
"We just work well together, I don't really know if there's a rhyme or reason, but we all just came together and we all just work really good together — all of our energies are in sync and we all really want the same thing, we really want to go after this national championship," Morgan said.
Coach McCutcheon said the key now is to be able to focus as they prepare for the tournament.
"As easy as it is to get wrapped up in the fact that it is single elimination, and it is the NCAA tournament and there's all these shiny things all around it, you know people all of the sudden care a lot more about what we're doing," he said.
Volleyball sets go quickly, and momentum can carry or hurt a team. McCutcheon says mental toughness in the moment is key.
"Ultimately, I think this is one of the strengths of this group, is they've been able to come to work, or come to the gym each day and take care of what they need to take care of, and manage that on a point to point, play to play basis," he said. "Our ability to stay in that space matters."