Hugh McCutcheon embraces precision in all things, including language. So when the Gophers volleyball coach talks about the transition to a new setter, you won't hear him using words like "filling the shoes of" or "replacing" Samantha Seliger-Swenson.
The Hopkins graduate finished her college career last year with 5,674 assists, fourth-most in program history, and was a first- or second-team all-America in each of her four seasons. McCutcheon doesn't want newcomer Kylie Miller to feel like she's being compared to Seliger-Swenson, or to think she has to replicate her in some way. With that integral position changing hands for the first time in years, he expects his entire team to pitch in to keep things running smoothly.
The Gophers have been working on that since January, when Miller, a transfer from UCLA, joined the team. While they're still refining the details, Miller was named Big Ten setter of the week Monday, a positive sign heading into this weekend's road matches against No. 10 Oregon and No. 1 Stanford.
"I don't know if there's a specific time frame where everything comes together," said Miller, who had 79 assists, 14 digs and three aces in last week's loss at Texas and victory over Florida. "But if everybody's on board, that's what you need to make those connections on the court. We're coming together as a team because we're all willing to work with each other.
"I never thought I would be in this position, but I'm really excited that I am. I get to push myself and be part of a great program. It's really something special."
Miller, who is in her final season of eligibility, is a short-term solution for the Gophers. She brings three years of college experience to a roster that also lost backup setter Sara Nielsen, who transferred to Kansas last spring after her sophomore season.
That left Bayley McMenimen, who did not play as a freshman last year, as the only returning setter on this year's roster. Over the summer, the Gophers also brought in setter Tamara Dolonga, a freshman from Croatia; next season, the Gophers are expected to add a coveted recruit from Indiana, Melani Shaffmaster.
At UCLA, Miller had a career-high 693 assists (9.62 per set) as a junior in the rugged Pac-12. Her early arrival at the U gave her nearly eight months to forge bonds with her new teammates.
She said it was "huge" to have so much time to learn the Gophers' system and how to set for each hitter. Middle blocker Taylor Morgan, Miller's roommate, found it a relatively smooth transition.
"Over the summer, we just connected," Morgan said. "It's not like anything magical happened. We just got on the court and played, and it was like, 'Wow. OK. She fits really well with us.'
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"Obviously, there are things we do that are different than what she's used to. So we're still learning and connecting. But overall, it came down to, we trust her. And she trusts us."
Still, Seliger-Swenson left a large hole to fill. McCutcheon said the Gophers will miss not just her ability to set, but her defense, her serving and her creativity.
Because she excelled at so many facets of the game, McCutcheon is counting on "a cumulative compensation" from all players to fill the voids. He's been happy with Miller's play so far, and with the group's effort to adapt to a major change.
"Ky is doing a good job setting, and she's really good at connecting with her hitters," McCutcheon said. "One of the things we've tried to do to help her is to increase the hitters' range, in terms of their ability to get to the set and hit some more shots. We're able to do more with the ball than we were a year ago.
"They don't need a perfect set to be a good hitter. They can take anything out there and make something out of it."
Those connections are continuing to grow. The Gophers are a tight-knit bunch that likes to spend time together, even if it's just hanging out or watching TV. Miller said the deeper their friendships become, the stronger their bonds on the court.
She isn't trying to imitate Seliger-Swenson, now part of the U.S. national team player pool. Miller just wants to give the Gophers her best, which is all McCutcheon asks.
"We'll miss Sam," he said. "But it's not like these kids we've got in here are chopped liver. They'll be just fine.''
This article is written by Rachel Blount from Star Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.