5 Things You Need To Know For The NCAA Volleyball Final Four
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The phrase "put your game face on" generally refers to something like a scowl of determination. But not always. For Kansas libero Cassie Wait, who was preparing Saturday for the biggest serves of her college volleyball career, there was a much more empowering facial expression.
She drew positive vibes from looking over at her teammates on the bench. She got the signal on where to serve from coach Ray Bechard. She took a deep breath.
"Then I put a smile on my face," Wait said. "I think that's always helped me a lot. You have confidence in yourself, and you follow your routine."
Teams work on this in practice with the hope that in the most pressure-packed of circumstances, the fundamentals of training kick in. They did for the Jayhawks at the most crucial time.
If you weren't awake for the late, late show Saturday of volleyball's regional final extravaganza, you missed one of the bigger upsets in recent memory in the NCAA tournament -- all the more stunning because of the way it played out at the end.
Down 13-9 in the fifth set, the Jayhawks reeled off six consecutive points to knock off No. 1 seed USC in the San Diego regional, sending Kansas to the program's first final four.
From the hundreds of Kansas fans who came Sunday evening to the Horejsi Center -- the volleyball team's home that adjoins the school's most famous venue, Allen Fieldhouse -- there came a resounding "yes" when Bechard asked if they had stayed up to watch the final.
The blue-and-crimson-clad faithful were there to welcome home the Jayhawks, who all wore "Omaha Bound" white T-shirts and slightly weary but ecstatic smiles. The Jayhawks were the last team to punch their final four ticket, and as the No. 9 seed produced the only upset of the regional finals.
They will take on No. 4 seed Nebraska in Thursday's national semifinals at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska. That match will follow the opener between No. 2 seed Minnesota and No. 3 Texas, which begins at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Incidentally, in the "it's how you finish" category: None of the final four teams were ever ranked No. 1 in the AVCA poll this season. The teams that reached the top spot in the rankings during the year were Penn State, USC and Washington.
Now that the quartet is set for Omaha, let's take a look at some of the various story lines.
1. The resolve of the Jayhawks
Kansas won the first two sets against USC, lost the next two, and then was down 4-0 in the fifth. Then during a timeout, the Jayhawks reassured each other.
"We all just looked at each other and said, 'We've come this far, and it's not luck,'" said outside hitter Kelsie Payne, who led KU with 18 kills. "We knew there was no reason why it couldn't be us winning. None of us doubted we could do it."
Payne took four swings on the epic final point, and while she didn't put it away, she also didn't make an error. How do you swing freely with so much aggression when your season is on the line? Well, again, it's what players practice, simulating situations just like that. However ...
"It is a lot harder when it's for real and people are watching," Payne said, laughing. "But you train for it. You don't want to be tentative, but you have to be smart. That point felt like forever."
The player who ended the rally and the match was Payne's fellow sophomore Madison Rigdon, who nailed a kill near the back corner.
"I've watched it over and over again," Rigdon said of the final point. "Our coach had told us, Kelsie and I, to just swing away, that everyone had our backs."
The furthest the Jayhawks had ever been before in the NCAA tournament was the round of 16. Now, they'll have a new banner to hang in the Horejsi Center that, at the very least, will say "final four." Might it even say, "national champions?" While the Jayhawks may be the newcomers to the final four, they did just eliminate the top seed. So no one will underestimate them going to Omaha.
2. Longhorn legacy
Among the many congratulatory texts the Jayhawks received was one from the Big 12 player of the year, Amy Neal, whose Texas squad survived a tense five-setter against Florida in its regional final.
"She said, 'Can't wait to see you guys in Omaha,' and the fact that Texas is going, too, is awesome," Payne said, who like Rigdon and three other Jayhawks is from the Lone Star State.
Ah, but of course Texas is going. Hasn't that become nearly automatic? It's the fourth consecutive final four for the Longhorns and seventh in the last eight years. Overall, Texas has advanced this far 11 times and won two national championships.
Neal, Molly McCage and Kat Brooks are the first senior class at Texas to make the final four every season of their careers, during which they are 112-12. That ties them for most wins for a Texas class, matching the 2010 Longhorn seniors.
This year's seniors were freshmen on Texas' 2012 NCAA title team, and they'd certainly love to end their careers the way they started them.
Texas is the only one of the four teams headed to Omaha that has players with final four experience. Nebraska has the most final four appearances (12) of any of the four schools. For Minnesota, this is the fourth appearance. However, the last for the Huskers was 2008, and the last for the Gophers was 2009. So none of the current players for Nebraska and Minnesota have advanced this far before.
3. The non-coastal final four
For the first time, the NCAA semifinals will feature all four teams from the Central time zone. And it's kind of fitting that the event itself will be in Central time zone, too.
It's just the fourth time since the NCAA tournament began in 1981 that the final four has no participant from the Pac-12 (formerly Pac-10). Instead, it will feature the top two teams this season from both the Big Ten and the Big 12.
"It speaks of the development in this region," Bechard said, referencing the strength of club volleyball in the Midwest, plus Minnesota and, of course, Texas. "There's more parity in our sport; whereas 10 or 15 years ago, we weren't really talking about that."
Minnesota holds a 4-3 series edge against Texas; the teams last met in back-to-back regular-season matches in 2012. In the 2009 NCAA semifinals, Texas swept Minnesota.
There was a time when the Kansas and Nebraska players would have known each other very well, but the programs haven't met since 2010, when the Huskers were still in the Big 12. They left for the Big Ten the next season.
To say Nebraska dominated its series with Kansas would be an understatement; the Huskers are 86-0-1, the tie being an odd two-set match back in 1977.
4. Home-grown Huskers
Nebraska can get recruits from everywhere, but there's always a lot of in-state talent for the Huskers, too. There are seven Nebraskans on the Huskers' roster this season. Three of them played on the same high school team at Papillion-La Vista South: Kelly Hunter and twins Kadie and Amber Rolfzen.
Hunter is a second-generation Husker. Her mother, Lori Melcher Hunter, was also a setter at Nebraska, from 1977-80.
Nebraska also played in the final four both previous times the event was held in Omaha, winning the title in 2006 and falling in the semifinals to Penn State in 2008. Both those years, the Huskers had to rally in dramatic, nail-biting fashion in the regional final after losing the first two sets. This year, it wasn't nearly that nerve-wracking for the Huskers or their fans, with a 3-1 victory over Washington.
In fact, you could say Nebraska has looked as good as any team in the NCAA tournament thus far, beating Harvard, Wichita State and BYU in the first three rounds.
The Huskers are on a 14-match winning streak that started after they'd lost back-to-back matches at home to Minnesota and Wisconsin on Oct. 23-24.
The CenturyLink Center isn't "home" for the Lincoln-based Huskers, but it's the next-best thing, just 50 miles away. The "Red Sea" will be out in full force Thursday.
5. Appreciate the grind
The Big Ten had nine teams make the NCAA field and now has two in the final four. Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said that while conference play can be particularly taxing, there's still the knowledge that competing in the Big Ten is great preparation for a postseason run.
"While you're going through it, you may wonder where it helps," McCutcheon said, smiling. "But it's not a grind that wears you down. It's a grind that polishes you."