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Chris Hewitt | St. Paul Pioneer Press | December 14, 2016

Minnesota volleyball teammates go way back

  Minnesota is set to play Stanford in the semifinals this Thursday night.

Last time Sarah Wilhite was in Columbus, Ohio, she did a cool thing that she'd like to do again on her first return visit: win a national volleyball championship.

Wilhite, the Big Ten player of the year and a national player-of-the-year candidate, is in Columbus with the University of Minnesota team for the NCAA Final Four, which begins Thursday. Back in 2012, when Wilhite was an Eden Prairie junior, she and five of her Gophers teammates played together on a different team: the Northern Lights club team that beat a Texas squad to win the Under-17 Open national championship.

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The first time Wilhite played with future college All-Americans Paige Tapp and Hannah Tapp of Stewartville was back in their junior year in high school, in 2011. Many of the other athletes on that Northern Lights team were rivals throughout their high school careers who united to play club volleyball and, later, to become Golden Gophers: Minnesota junior Alyssa Goehner and senior Erica Handley, both from Lakeville North, and another future All-American, sophomore Samantha Seliger-Swenson from Hopkins.

The chemistry that comes from those long-time connections has been an asset to the Gophers, according to coach Hugh McCutcheon, who said, "When you're in the AAU world, you get familiar with each other and you learn to play together."

Like just about everything these days, the connection started with social media.

"I actually was the one who reached out to (the Tapp sisters) on social media to join our club team," said Wilhite, who had seen the Tapps play and invited them to hit some balls with Northern Lights players.

Paige Tapp was into that idea.

"I got that Facebook message from a Wilhite and I was so nervous because everyone in the state knew who Alyssa Goehner and Sarah Wilhite were," said Tapp, who still has a copy of a video in which Wilhite, who originally committed to attending Wisconsin, announced that she had shifted gears and would instead play for the Minnesota team to which the Tapps already were signed.

Paige, whose twin sister was injured and couldn't go, recalls that first meeting: "We peppered some balls and I got back and said, 'Mom and Dad, I'll do whatever it takes to be on that team.' "

Wilhite said she and Tapp hit it off.

"That first time, we were all amazed at how good a player Paige was," said Wilhite, who also was impressed off the court. "We have very similar personalities, so we clicked right away."

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In the small world of elite volleyball, the six Gophers who played club ball together may be the biggest connection at the Final Four, but that's not the only one. Stanford's Audriana Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray, whose team will face Minnesota in the first semifinal match at 6 p.m.Thursday, used to play for Kansas City Invasion, the same club team as Gophers freshman Alexis Hart.

And Ebony Nwanebu currently plays for Texas, which will face Nebraska in the other semifinal and would meet Minnesota in the final if both advance. But, back in 2012, Nwanebu was a member of that Texas club that Northern Lights beat to win the championship. ___