PITTSBURGH — The semifinals of the NCAA Division I National Championship begin Thursday. And so, on Wednesday, the four teams remaining — Baylor, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Stanford — traded practice times and press conferences.
In a day that was a blend of both intensity in preparation and fun because, well, what isn’t fun about competing in the national semifinals, the coaches and athletes mixed in quotes big and small and memorable. We did our best to narrow it down to the top sound bytes:
Did the injury to setter Kylie Miller make you a better team?
Minnesota libero CC McGraw: “Yes, I think so. Definitely the fact we were able to overcome that and work through that because it wasn’t easy; it was a grind, that’s for sure. But we’re definitely benefitting from that and I think it shows from our resiliency in the end. I think we were able to take it one day at a time. We tried not worry about how long she was going to be out or whatnot. But just knowing that we were able to do that and just take it one point at a time. I think that was the big thing, was we tried not to stress about it. As long as everybody was able to do their own job, I mean, we have the depth for it. Our setters were amazing who filled that role.”
Both the matchups here are matchups that we saw in September. A couple months later, how much different are you guys from the first time that you played Stanford?
Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon: “Yeah, I think the growth in this particular instance has been a little different, as you’re alluding to. When you’ve got a healthy team for a whole season, now you’re working on nuances and some specific situational things, but we’re still trying to get on the same page. So it’s a whole different kind of setup. But within that, yeah, the growth has been people expanding their role. People ready to do different things on different days, being able to compensate and adjust. I think we’re more nimble, if I can use that word, relative to different systems at different times or different things that we might have to do in a different situation. I think we’re just a little more well rounded. So I think that’s really been the benefit of this injury that, yeah, had to have pretty serious repercussions for us over the course of the year.”
You reached the pinnacle of your sport by coaching the men to a gold medal. When you transitioned to coaching women, was it just as a matter of that’s where the resources are in the sport or what was —
Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon: “Initially, it was a few different factors at the time. I felt like our journey with the men was kind of complete. It had a beginning, a middle, and a pretty good end. So it felt like if I was going to stay in that international world, and it’s kind of a meat grinder, if I was going to stay in that space, the idea for me as a coach — in 2008, I was 38 at that time. So to stay another four years with the men seemed like we’d be trying to reinvent the same wheel.
“And I don’t know if that held the same appeal as really trying to bring this body of knowledge that had been applied pretty successfully on the men’s side, not just through me but through other coaches over a pretty good history of succeeding — Doug Beal, Marv Dunphy, the late Carl McGown was a part of that, Bill Neville — but all these guys and take that work and kind of apply it on the women’s side so that we could coach our female athletes in a similar way with a method that was based in some pretty strong scientific rigor.
“So it seemed a little bit like a mad scientist experiment at the time, but I think, even though we only won the silver medal in London with the women, still a remarkable run. And it was kind of validation that this process was not gender-specific and we could get off of talking about men’s volleyball and women’s volleyball and that we could really talk about volleyball and how we’re going to play the game. Because volleyball is one of the few games where we actually change the constraints of the game, the net height to deal with the differences in height and power.
“So with the guys, we had people hitting 12 feet and crushing the ball on an eight-foot net. But we had women that were touching over a 11 that were doing it on a 7’4″ net. It was kind of cool to see that transfer of method from the men to women and see, hey, you know what? It’s just volleyball.”
You saw this Baylor team a couple months ago. We just talked to Coach Mac over at Baylor, and he says you learn a lot more from losses than wins. And you guys might have an advantage because of that. What did you learn from the last time you guys played them?
Wisconsin setter Sydney Hilley: “I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to base this game off of that one just because it was so long ago and it’s two different teams now. Our lineup is different. Watching the film, it’s like two different teams. It’s not even us and Baylor anymore. I do think we learned from that in the time and brought that with us, but I think that the film that we’re watching now on them is a little more accurate on that.”
Dana, you guys have pretty much a brutal schedule going through the Big Ten. How much did that help you get here?
Wisconsin middle Dana Rettke: “Yeah, the Big Ten every single night is a battle. Doesn’t matter who is the on other side of the net, you’ll have big battles. I think it prepares us really well for the tournament. The venues we play in too prepare us really well for the tournament. We play in venues that are packed, whether that’s our home at the Field House or on the road. Usually a really good crowd at all the Big Ten schools for volleyball. But the Big Ten Conference prepares us great for these situations in the tournament, and we’re just really excited about that.”
Coach, you know what it’s like to build a program, how hard it is to get back there year in and year out. What are some of your thoughts on what Ryan’s done at Baylor, which is not in any way a traditional volleyball program?
Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield: “What they’re doing down there has been incredible. I think they’re doing things the right way. Him and I — I don’t know if it was the last year or the year before, but him and I were sitting at a table at I think the All-American banquet, one of the banquets, the two of us sitting next to each other and picking each other’s brains. And I told him then — and it’s funny that both of us are sitting here in the Final Four, but I admire the job that he’s done down there. It’s steady progress, but it certainly seems like they position themselves to be a place where elite players want to go down there.
“He’s done an amazing job. And there’s enough talent down there for there to be quite a few schools that are successful. And he’s really done an amazing job, and certainly seems like the kids are having a good experience and enjoying themselves.”
Have you ever played with anybody who seems like they float in the air like Yossiana Pressley, and how big of a factor do you think that is and how successful she can be?
Baylor middle Shelly Stafford: “I’ve never seen it in my life. And seriously, I think it was last year at TCU, and she got set this ball, and she jumped, and like I was expecting her to come down, because gravity exists, but literally, like — literally she kept going up and up, and I was like: When is she going to come down? And she snuck that thing at the line. I was like: Okay.
That was probably, like, the coolest volleyball moment ever. I was on the court, like, just watching you, and it was really, really fun. And also it hurts because she breaks your fingers. Like blocking her, if your hands are like this, she’s like up here. She hits down on your fingers. So I’m like: Bro.
But I love you. Good job.”
Baylor outside hitter Gia Milana: “I would second that. I think Yossi is an incredible athlete. She knows the game so well. And so playing alongside of her is truly awesome. But playing against her is not as awesome. She’s hard to reach. She hits quick. Hits high. So she challenges me to max jump on everything to try to get a touch on it but still hits over me. So she definitely makes everyone around her better.”
Baylor outside hitter Yossiana Pressley: “Okay, you thought she was talking about me, but she was talking about herself. And Shelly is truly amazing and she literally does everything. She sets. She hits. She’s a libero. And like she’s just truly an all-around amazing player, and I look up to her every single day.
“So all that you say about me, like I’ve seen that in you, and I try to do that. So you’ve been a great role model. I’m not just saying that because you’re all here; I truly mean it.”
How do you foster that culture where it seems to be — you mentioned joy a lot, and how valuable is that in the success of a team?
Baylor coach Ryan McGuyre: “I think it’s huge because it’s so closely tied to our identity. Our identity is not tied into our wins, it’s not tied into our losses. It’s not tied to our successes. It’s not tied to our accolades. It’s what Baylor University is all about, preparing champions for life and committed to the mission of serving Jesus Christ, and He is the greatest example of being a servant leader.
“And, again, we’ve had athletes from all different backgrounds, areas, and a big believer in diversity enhances excellence. So you want different perspectives. And you can look at teams from all different areas of the world that I’ve coached in the past, but I think ultimately you attract people who are like-minded. And so that’s been part of the recruiting thread. It’s probably scared off some really high-level athletes that just want to hear how nice our locker room is, or how quickly can we win national championships, and am I going to be on TV and all these things.
“And we’ve had those opportunities as we’ve been here now, but that’s not on the forefront of it. So, as you listen to Gia, that’s what brought her to Baylor. We weren’t selling her on her success, but we were selling her on how much we’re going to pour in to you. And, again, that goes back to Baylor we have departments dedicated that. I love coaching college age. I think it’s the age you define your identity, and at Baylor you’re surrounded by so many people encouraging wise decisions in that.
“So I think it’s important at this age how you handle stress, and pressure can make or break you as you move into your career. As they’re picking majors — you’ve got Shelly married. We’ve got two girls engaged, picking spouses. I wish they’d hold off a little longer on that sometimes. But also like everybody in this tournament, where you’re trying to win games and you’re taking finals. And I’m yelling at them for two hours at practice and they’re trying to study for an exam, getting ready to play Wisconsin, how do you handle that stuff?
“That’s why I love Baylor and the love that’s poured into them. And as difficult as this season has been and as hopeful the triumphs are, we know that life brings its own challenges on us. And I feel very, very secure that whatever life brings this team down the road, that they’re equipped to handle and know what it takes to get through that.
“But more so, when they run into those people that are really impacted in such a way that they’re going to be leaders and helping those people get through those times as well.”
You talked about the other side of being out and being injured, but in any way are you a better player coming back after that injury?
Stanford outside hitter Kathryn Plummer: “I think so. Like I said, you had to see the game in a different way, and so things that I saw on the bench that we’re working or that we could do, I’ve been trying to implement that in my game. And I think it’s easier for me now to speak up because I had to do that when I was off. And so I can kind of help — I’m trying to help people see different things and talk about it in a different way.”
Prior to Kathryn (Plummer) getting injured, you went through a little bit of a rough stretch there, losing three out of five. What was your mindset? You lose the best player in the country, and your thoughts on how the team dealt with that?
Stanford coach Kevin Hambly: “Well, my mindset was we’ve got to sort it out, and we knew there would be an opportunity she would come back obviously. We wanted to make sure — we were lucky we have quite a bit of talent in our gym. The next step was how to figure out how to use this talent as best as possible.
“Certainly with Kathryn, we were kind of building around her, and so we had to go kind of back to the drawing board and change the way we play and change the way we design our defenses and offenses. And I think the team handled it remarkably. They were very calm. The first match, after we found out she was out, was Oregon. We were at Oregon. They’re a tough team to play because they run a very sophisticated offense. But the team was as they have been the entire time I’ve been here, very poised, very calm, and just got to the work of problem solving, starting over with the problem solving and figuring out how we want to play.
“And we reinvented ourselves in a lot of ways. We were much more of a defensive transition team than we were an offensive team. And so I thought they handled it great. And the fact we went 9-1 was remarkable. I think we’re better because of it. I think Kathryn is better because of it. She was able to sit outside, and a lot of the stuff we were talking about, you need to attack the line more, do different things like that, all of a sudden she was back and was doing.
“And I think it helped her with the team as far as, like she mentioned, just being a better leader. She was always kind of a quiet leader and lead by example, and she had to become more vocal because she still wanted to have that impact on the program and on the team. And she did a great job of that during that time when she was off and she continued moving forward. So I think it was a blessing in disguise, if you will.”