MINNEAPOLIS -- They know each other so well that they finish each other's sentences. Minnesota associate athletic trainer Ronni Beatty-Kollasch met Taylor Morgan, the daughter of Gophers women's track coach Matt Bingle, when Taylor was a little girl, running around the Bierman Field Athletic Building or the crumbling maroon track behind it. They bonded when Morgan committed to Minnesota for volleyball.
As Morgan endured four knee surgeries, she and Beatty-Kollasch often met at 6 a.m. in the basement training room of Maturi Pavilion, Minnesota's home court, for rehabilitation sessions. The room was cold, isolated, and so crowded that some athletes exercised in the hallway. Those early mornings featured heart-to-heart talks and fragile emotions, especially after the last surgery in January. The first three had been on Morgan's left knee. This time, she tore the meniscus in her right knee.
"This fourth one was like, 'OK, the other one now?" Morgan said. "This was Old Faithful. Now you're going to mess up on me?
"Mentally, I'm going through it. There were a lot of tears. A lot of me calling my mom. A lot of calling Ronni, coming down there, crying."
Coach Hugh McCutcheon and the Minnesota medical staff met with Morgan and her parents shortly after the surgery, wondering whether Morgan, a reserve middle blocker, should continue. Morgan was adamant. She wanted to be a Gophers volleyball star more than anything, and felt she couldn't face her two little sisters (they're 12 and 14 years old) if she quit before it happened.
"Taylor didn't hesitate," Beatty-Kollasch recalled. "She didn't even look at her parents. She might have glanced my way a bit, and then said, 'We're going to do this.' OK, here we go.
"The rehab process is really complicated. There are a lot of emotions involved with it, and this is her fourth time. We had a lot of talks about this. 'Do you want to play?' She never wavered. She said, 'I don't care if I never get a spot. I want to try.' "
Morgan won a starting job in the preseason and rose to be one of Minnesota's best and most fiery players. Her play could be key as the No. 2 Gophers (27-3), bidding for a hometown berth in the Final Four, meet No. 15 Oregon (22-10) on Friday afternoon in the Minneapolis Regional semifinals. The winner faces either defending national champion Nebraska (26-6) or SEC champion Kentucky (26-4) in Saturday night's regional final.
In a deep and balanced Gophers attack, Morgan is one of five players with at least 200 kills. Morgan's .381 hitting percentage and 1.09 blocks per set ranked second on the team to All-Big Ten Conference first-team selection Regan Pittman (.407, 1.16). Morgan made second-team All-Big Ten, which she relished, and was one of six Gophers named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association's All-North Region team.
"She's probably one of the ... if not the toughest person I know, because of all the injuries she's had to go through," said Gophers setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the Big Ten Player of the Year. "The path to becoming the player she is today has not been easy at all. But she's just super determined."
Taylor Morgan won a starting spot in the preseason and has been one of the No. 2 Gophers' go-to hitters since.
Morgan's parents were track athletes in college, and she ran in high school as well, but volleyball became her passion. Her knee issues began with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament early in her junior season at Blaine High School, north of Minneapolis. "I kind of came down on a block weird, and it just kind of popped," she said. Because Beatty-Kollasch and Morgan knew each other before the injury, the NCAA allowed Morgan to rehab at Minnesota.
Then came three meniscus tears. The first, in a scrimmage in August 2015, her freshman year, was repairable but cost her the season. Morgan attended her first college class on crutches.
Morgan played off the bench her redshirt freshman and sophomore years before tearing a different part of the left meniscus in a November 2016 match against Wisconsin. Debridement surgery the following January removed the damaged tissue. Almost exactly one year later, a shredded right meniscus required another debridement.
"The right one, I think, probably was the most heartbreaking even though it wasn't the most serious," Beatty-Kollasch said. "That was hard for all of us."
Was a fourth rehab worth it for someone who wasn't playing much? McCutcheon could not guarantee Morgan a starting job if she came back. And every surgery increased the chances of arthritis down the line. But Morgan stubbornly pressed on.
"I've been through so much," Morgan said. "At the end of the day, I don't want my two younger sisters to look up to me and be like, 'She was a good volleyball player, but she never got to play because she was hurt all the time.' Or, 'She could have done this or done that, but she was hurt all the time and just kind of gave up and didn't do it.' I know they would never say that, but I know kids, and kids talk to their friends, and all that stuff.
"I want them to look at me and go, 'Wow. Yeah, I'm going through something tough. I might be getting bullied. I'm going through some situations with my family. But I'm not going to give up, because it's going to get better.' "
"Not only to my little sisters, but to the little girls who are in the crowd. I want them to look at me and go, 'Wow. Yeah, I'm going through something tough. I might be getting bullied. I'm going through some situations with my family. But I'm not going to give up, because it's going to get better.' There's always a storm before the rainbow. It always gets real hard right before it gets real good."
Morgan recovered quickly enough to attend USA Volleyball tryouts in Colorado Springs in March, an annual three-day all-comers session she had never been healthy enough to attend before. "We weren't sure we were going to send her until literally we were leaving that day," Beatty-Kollasch said. "But she held her own. The USA staff, they said, 'Wow, where did she come from?' I said, 'We had her in the training room for three years.' "
Minnesota's spring conditioning camp is notoriously demanding, but Morgan made it through without restrictions. Morgan plays with energy and abandon, oblivious to the enormous left knee brace she insists on wearing. "She's not afraid to take big swings in big moments for us," Seliger-Swenson said.
And when the Gophers need reassurance, Morgan provides it. "I live for tough moments," she said.
Like Nov. 3, when Michigan State forced the Gophers into a fifth set at the Pavilion -- the first five-setter Minnesota played all season. Gathering her teammates, Morgan calmly declared the Gophers were the better team and would not lose in front of their fans. The Gophers didn't, jumping to a 7-2 lead and winning 15-7. Minnesota brings a 16-0 home mark into the weekend.
"She's really impactful on the court with her energy and her presence," sophomore opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy said. "The fact that she's been through a lot of knee surgeries, and still wants to come back and fight, shows her character."
Now Morgan and the Gophers are two victories away from their season-long goal, qualifying for the Final Four across town at the Target Center. Morgan relishes another crack at Oregon, which dealt the Gophers their first loss, in four sets in early September at the Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge.
"In the beginning of the year, we were still figuring a lot of stuff out," Morgan said. "Oregon is a great team. They found our weakness and they utilized it. Kudos to them. I'm very excited to come at them. Our team, we mesh so well together now. We're excited to see what we can do against them, and it's personal now."
No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 14 Marquette, noon ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
No. 7 Nebraska vs. No. 10 Kentucky, 2 ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
No. 6 Wisconsin vs. San Diego, 2:30 ET, ESPN3/WatchESPN
No. 5 Texas vs. Michigan, 4 ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
No. 2 Minnesota vs. No. 15 Oregon, 4:30 ET, ESPN3/WatchESPN
No. 8 Penn State vs. Washington, 6 ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
No. 4 BYU vs. Florida, 6:30 ET, ESPN3/WatchESPN
No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 16 Washington State, 8:30 ET, ESPN3/WatchESPN