Sept. 30, 2013
This story is published in the September issue of the Ski-U-Mah Magazine.
Heading into this season, Gopher seniors Ashley Wittman and Tori Dixon had combined for 2,477 kills and 549 blocks, as well as four All-American and five All-Big Ten awards and two selections to the conference All-Freshman Team.
But they've been combining talents for a lot longer than that. Dixon and Wittman also played five years together for their Northern Lights AAU team, and have lived together since they first arrived on campus.
In other words, they've spent roughly half of their lives practicing and playing volleyball and hanging out together. And it shows. On the last day of preseason camp, they sat across a table from each other at the Sports Pavilion taking turns reflecting on their shared history and, yes, completing each other's sentences.
"We know what helps the other person--what they are comfortable with. We know each other's goals, aspirations and everything," says Dixon, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Burnsville, Minnesota, and the daughter of David Dixon, former offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings. "We're teammates, we're friends and we've known each other's life history. We've grown up together."
Wittman, a six-foot outside hitter from Shakopee, Minnesota, nods in agreement. "We're not afraid to let each other know what we're really feeling and to have those hard conversations and fight about things, because we've been together for so long, we're able to talk about things that need to be talked about," she says. "It's been fun, for sure. It's going to be weird not playing with each other, I think."
"I don't like talking about that," Dixon pipes in.
The Long Road to `Right up the Road'
Dixon and Wittman tasted success, and lots of it, at an early age, winning three AAU national championships in a row in the age groupings of 15s, 16s, and 17s. They also played for the USA Youth National Team for a couple years and were able to travel extensively, including to Puerto Rico and Italy.
But there was no overt or secret LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh-style agreement to come to the University of Minnesota in lockstep. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Although they traveled together to visit a couple of other Big Ten schools, namely Wisconsin and Illinois, they explored other colleges on their own.
"I honestly don't think we ever talked about coming to the same place together," adds Wittman. "When we both decided to come to Minnesota it was like, `Sweet, we're going together.'"
"Minnesota was the best mix of pretty much everything I wanted, a good volleyball program, lots of [academic] options, a good school, and it just worked out that it was right up the road from me," she Dixon. "I can see my parents when I want and my friends from high school are around, so it's just comfortable. I loved it here and I still do."
"Walking around campus, I could see myself actually going here, rather than when I walked around the other places," adds Wittman. "And like Tori said, it was nice that I'm not too far away and my family can come support me and watch me, and I can see them and get off campus if I need to."
Continuity in Times of Change
Throughout their first three years, Dixon and Wittman have been consistently excellent. Both earned spots on the Big Ten's All-Freshmen Team in 2010. Wittman was a unanimous All-Big Ten and second-team All-American selection as a sophomore, and Dixon claimed those same honors as a junior.
Still, they've experienced more than their share of coaching changes.
They played their first year in 2010 under legendary coach Mike Hebert in his final season before retiring. Although Hugh McCutcheon was announced to be Hebert's successor, Laura Bush took over as interim head coach the following year while McCutcheon fulfilled his commitment to coach the U.S. women's team in the 2012 Olympics. Now, as McCutcheon enters his second full season as head coach, Dixon and Wittman are feeling, well... a strange and delightful sense of continuity.
"I think we've adapted really well to all the changes that have gone on the past four years," says Wittman.
Dixon agrees. "At least for the seniors, it helps us learn to adjust because we've had a different coach all three years," she says. "Each coach has different philosophies and things that the team focuses on. Hugh's [philosophy] is not just being a good volleyball player, but being a good teammate, being a good friend, being a good person.
"In terms of getting to know our teammates and those relationships, I'd say this year is by far the best. Everyone is working together and on the same page. Not saying that other years we haven't, but it just feels different this year, in a good way."
Big Ten, Big Names, Big Expectations
Of course, the page everyone is on involves a deep resolve to make it even deeper into the post-season. The Gophers were ranked No. 6 in the nation heading into the season, and trailed only perennial power Penn State, which was ranked No. 2. That's the good news. The bad news? No less than seven Big Ten teams were ranked in the top 25.
Which could be discouraging... if it wasn't so much fun.
"I love this conference," says Wittman. "Every night you have to go into battle. Whether you're playing No. 1 in the Big Ten or last in the Big Ten it's going to be a fight that night, and you have to be ready for every single weekend, every single match. And that prepares us for our post-season; it can only help."
"It is the powerhouse conference," says Dixon. "It's very evident in the polls and even the post-season--how far everyone gets. We have to go out and play on Friday night and be good, and then we have to go out and play on Saturday night and be good. Some conferences I think you can maybe slack off one of the two nights if one of the opponents is stronger than the other. But in the Big Ten, literally, anyone can beat anyone."
"Any time," adds Wittman. "You have to be ready every night. There are no off days in the Big Ten."
And the Gophers, by virtue of their three Final Four appearances in the last decade, know that opposing teams are aiming for them every bit as much as Penn State.
"Yeah, [the coaches] always say everyone's always gunning for us. We're Minnesota and people want to beat us. And that's fine with us. We've just gotta play."
And play they will--together--at least for one last year.
Rick Moore is a writer and editor in University Relations and a long-time follower of Gopher Athletics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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