Dealing with volleyball adversity: Oregon, Minnesota, Penn State, Stanford recap; photo gallery

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Penn State's Allie Holland goes for the kick against Oregon/Leslie Hamann photo
Editor’s note: Longtime volleyball aficionados and Volleyball magazine contributors Jack and Leslie Hamann covered the tournament at Oregon this past weekend. Jack wrote the story, while Leslie’s best photos are in a gallery below.

By Jack Hamann for VolleyMag.com, photos by Leslie Hamann

EUGENE, OREGON—Volleyball coaches are rarely adverse to adversity.

Spend enough time with any elite program, and you, too, may start singing the praises of hardship.

Suffering builds character. Setbacks teach resilience. Adversity molds champions.

As Stanford coach Kevin Hambly put it during this past weekend’s Pac12/BigTen Challenge on the campus of the University of Oregon, “How do you know who you are until you’ve been in some good fights?”

For three consecutive fall seasons (2018, 2019, 2021), Stanford and Oregon have each sparred a few non-conference rounds with both Minnesota and Penn State. The Cardinal and the Nittany Lions are college volleyball royalty, winning a combined nine of the past 16 NCAA championships. In the tournament’s 40 years, either Stanford or Penn State — or both — have reached the national semifinals in 29 seasons. Minnesota has no titles, but has reached the semifinals six times since 2003, including three of the past six tournaments, and the championship match in 2004. The Ducks have been to the big dance just once, losing the title match to Texas in 2012.

As he prepared to host this year’s challenge, Oregon coach Matt Ulmer was positively giddy at the prospect of competing against Hambly, Minnesota’s Hugh McCutcheon and Penn State’s Russ Rose.

“Russ Rose!” said Ulmer. “How exciting is that? In our own gym? Personally, it’s an amazing thing for me.”

It proved amazing for his team, too, as the Ducks swept Penn State on Friday on the strength of precise serving and tenacious defense.

Taylor Borup, a powerful 23-year-old outside hitter, was one of the weekend’s most effective all-around players, targeted for most opponents’ serves, and able to keep passers guessing with a confident service assortment of her own. Ulmer needed Borup because VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American Brooke Nuneviller’s sprained ankle made her questionable right until the moment the lineup card was due. Nuneviller hit below her average but somehow performed above her already high-octane intensity.

While Ulmer was in awe of Rose, McCutcheon and Hambly were more than just peers: They are literally best friends.

“It’s a rare thing,” said McCutcheon. “We care about each other. We’re gonna compete and just do the best we can.”

“After the match,” says Hambly, “we’ll drink coffee and talk about the match, talk about kids, talk about life. To be around one of your best friends? That’s really nice.”

Coming in, Minnesota was 1-3, losing to Baylor, Texas and Florida, powerhouses all. One of McCutcheon’s two sophomore outside hitters, Jenna Wenaas, had a positively dreadful match against the Gators, and the other, Taylor Landfair, struggled against Texas and was nursing an unspecified injury that kept her out of both the Florida match and then against Stanford. But Wenaas rebounded with a big night against the Cardinal, getting 17 kills and committing only one reception error. That took pressure off Big Ten Player of the Year Stephanie Samedy, allowing 6-foot-3 setter Melani Shaffmaster to keep Stanford’s defense guessing in a decisive 3-1 Golden Gopher win.

“We learned a lot from playing Minnesota,” said Hambly. “They exposed some new things that we need to work on.”

In particular, his much-heralded freshman setter Kami Miner was completely out of sync with her opposite hitter, Kendall Kipp, and with middles Holly Campbell and McKenna Vicini.

“She knows she struggled,” said Hambly. “She’s gonna have to figure that out.”

Adversity. Of the volleyball kind.

In normal times, knowing that the sport’s elite coaches and their programs struggle through hardships might create a little long-distance kinship but is unlikely to elicit much sympathy from the other 99%. The fact that these are not normal times, however, was underscored by the date of the tournament’s second day: the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

“I tried to discuss it with my team a little bit today,” said Rose, “because they felt bad about their performance yesterday. And I said, ‘Hey, I feel pretty bad about your performance yesterday as well. But, I have to tell you, in the big scope of things, something that happened 20 years ago, when a good number of you weren’t even born yet — is a whole different learning opportunity.’”

In the locker room before the Penn State match, Hambly shared his own recollections of that day, and asked his players to talk about its significance in the lives of their families and their nation of another shocking disruption: the global pandemic.

“Covid revealed a lot of things in our country,” he said. “The polarization of our politics, the social injustice, poverty. We had some really good conversations about all of that. What can we do to help, what can we do to at least have awareness and try to change those things.”

Truth is, many elite college volleyball athletes grow up in a bit of a bubble. Often through no fault of their own, they are protected and prodded by parents and coaches, enduring year-round schedules that leave little time for things other than the sport. Many coaches privately complain about the rise of entitled athletes. So events like 9/11 or COVID-19 are adversities that challenge coaches to consider how much the maxim about sport preparing young people for real life has any actual meaning.

Ulmer thinks it does.

“It really gives you perspective,” Ulmer said. “It bonds you together. It makes you really grateful to be a part of a team. Because life is short. And we just want to take care of each other. And embrace each other and love on each other.”

“To say that there is opportunity in this adversity is true,” said McCutcheon. “However, it’s been a very, very challenging time. To be able to accept the humanity of our circumstance. Just trying to work with that versus fighting it. Helping people work through their emotional responses to cancelled preseasons or cancelled seasons or moved seasons or whatever. It takes a lot of time and energy. But I think we have to take that responsibility. I think that’s a big part of our job.”

On Saturday, Miner, the Stanford setter, seemed to have grown a bit. Her delivery and distribution improved, keeping Penn State’s defense guessing. With a 10-2 run, the Cardinal ran away with the fifth set, 15-7.

In the nightcap, Oregon’s Nuneviller continued to play through the pain of her injured ankle and Minnesota’s Wenaas picked up where she left off the previous afternoon. In the fifth set, the Gophers’ Katie Myers recorded three consecutive blocks to emphatically confirm that she was the best blocker of the weekend’s four matches. Stephanie Samedy — the weekend’s best hitter — recorded three of Minnesota’s final four kills as the Gophers prevailed 15-12.

But in that fifth set, Minnesota played without its starting setter, Shaffmaster. In the fourth set, Shaffmaster left the game after a ball handling error and an apparent injury, forcing McCutcheon to call on his little-used 5-9 senior, Bayley McMenimen. 

Adversity. Of the volleyball kind.

McMenimen, it turned out, was up to the challenge, digging four balls and dishing 13 assists. Minnesota — the team with the fewest victories

entering the tournament, ended with the most wins of the weekend. Players and coaches erupted in joy afterwards.

“It’s a privilege to compete,” said McCutcheon. “That’s one thing we’ve learned, this can be taken away. Savor every point — not quite at that level of cliché — but understanding that, hey, this is what we’ve got today, and let’s engage and let’s do the best we can with it. ‘Cause we don’t know what tomorrow’s gonna bring.”

2021 Pac-12 vs. Big Ten

Won
Lost
08/28
3-1
Ohio St
Washington
09/03
3-1
Washington
Illinois
09/03
3-0
Purdue
Washington St
09/03
3-1
Colorado
Iowa
09/04
3-0
Penn St
Oregon St
09/04
3-1
Washington
Iowa
09/04
3-2
Arizona
Northwestern
09/04
3-0
Nebraska
Arizona St
09/04
3-2
Colorado
Illinois
09/10
3-1
Minnesota
Stanford
09/10
3-0
Oregon
Penn St
09/11
3-2
Stanford
Penn St
09/11
3-2
Minnesota
Oregon
09/11
3-2
Utah
Nebraska
09/14
Stanford
Nebraska


Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge

2018 at Stanford
Stanford def. Minnesota 3-1
Stanford def. Penn St 3-0
Oregon def. Minnesota 3-0
Penn St. def. Oregon 3-0
2019 at State College
Minnesota def. Oregon 3-0
Minnesota def. Stanford 3-1
Stanford def. Penn St 3-1
Penn St. def. Oregon 3-0
2021 at Eugene
Minnesota def. Oregon 3-2
Minnesota def. Stanford 3-1
Stanford def. Penn St. 3-2
Oregon def. Penn St. 3-0
2022 at Minneapolis

Click on any of Leslie Hamann’s photos to view at full size:

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