Claire Sheehan and the Minnesota volleyball team nearly saw their season end on Saturday, Dec. 7.
But the Gophers, facing match point against Creighton in a second-round NCAA Tournament contest, rallied to claim a five-set victory. As a result, the Cambridge native and her teammates, who are ranked No. 7 in the country in the latest national poll, have advanced to the Sweet 16.
Sheehan said playing in the Big Ten helped the Gophers prepare for the challenges of tournament play.
“Every season is a grind, especially in the Big Ten,” she said. “So we come to practice every day, working to get better. And when the games come around, we compete our hardest and see what happens from there.”
What has happened to this point has been magical for Sheehan and the Gophers. Besides the national ranking, Minnesota posted a 17-3 record in conference play to finish in a three-way tie for second, and a 25-5 overall mark has helped lift the Gophers to a fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Regional Semifinals.
Sheehan said the Golden Gophers do not feel pressure to justify the ranking.
“Every game is a new opponent, so we just take things game by game,” she said. “Rankings are just an opinion. We focus on taking things one game at a time.”
Curiously, the Big Ten does not sponsor a post-season league tournament, unlike many other Division I leagues. That’s something Sheehan felt was to the Big Ten’s advantage.
“Every match definitely matters during the regular season,” she said. “But I think there would be more pressure in a league tournament because a whole season would come down to the results of one match.”
While in high school, Sheehan starred at Cambridge-Isanti, finishing with 2,350 career kills and earning all-state honors as a senior. As a college freshman she played at Iowa, where she finished third on the team with 259 kills, but then transferred to Minnesota before her sophomore season in 2018.
“When I was at Iowa, I was five hours away, so [transferring] to Minnesota brought me closer to my family,” Sheehan explained. “I have a little sister, and getting to watch her grow up also was a big part of my decision. And I always wanted to play at the U when I was little. When I made my first decision [while in high school], it just wasn’t the right place for me. But over time, it became the right place.”
Her family has season tickets at Minnesota and attends every home game. That means they had front-row seats when Sheehan posted a season-high eight kills in the Gophers’ three-set sweep over No. 23 Michigan on Nov. 16.
“We had a player out, so I knew I would have to fill a big spot,” she said of that contest. “From working hard in practice, I had confidence I would be able to help my team to the victory.”
Sheehan is majoring in business marketing and education, with plans to graduate in December 2020.
“I would like to look into working in marketing for a medical company,” she said. “My mom, Lisa, is a nurse, and I was interested in nursing, but that was a hard degree to get while I was playing volleyball. So to tie my degree with something medical interests me.”