Penn State-Nebraska set to open the final four with a boom
Volleyball royalty will come to Kansas City this week: two seven-time national champions, Penn State and Stanford, four-time champ Nebraska, and Florida, which hasn't won an NCAA title but is in the final four for the eighth time.
It's an NCAA-best 21st trip to the national semifinals for the Cardinal, the 14th for the Huskers, and the 13th for the Nittany Lions.
The semifinals are Thursday and the final on Saturday at Sprint Center, which also hosted the 2010 final four. Penn State won back then for its fourth title in a row. Who goes home with the trophy this time? Let's preview the semifinal matchups, which include a blockbuster Big Ten showdown.
No. 1 Penn State (33-1) vs. No. 5 Nebraska (30-4), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
So we meet again. This match is the definition of the heavyweight class. Two storied programs with longtime successful coaches in Penn State's Russ Rose and Nebraska's John Cook. Two passionate fan bases who fill their arenas. The two teams that shared the Big Ten title this year. But their rivalry goes well beyond their time together in the Big Ten, which Nebraska joined in 2011.
This will be the programs' 31st meeting overall, their 11th in the NCAA tournament and their third in the final four.
The series edge goes to Nebraska 20-10, with the Huskers 7-3 in their NCAA tournament meetings with Penn State. But it must be noted that nine of those 10 in the postseason were played in the state of Nebraska -- eight in Lincoln and one in Omaha.
Thursday's contest may feel as if it's being held in Nebraska, too. Lincoln is just over three hours north of Kansas City, and Huskers fans are expected to take up many seats in Sprint Center.
But Penn State won the two previous final four meetings, both in the national semifinals. The Nittany Lions won in four sets in 1998 in Madison, Wisconsin, and in five sets in 2008 in Omaha.
The latter was, perhaps, the most thrilling match these teams have played. It happened when Penn State was in the midst of its historic run of four consecutive NCAA titles from 2007 to '10. The Nittany Lions won the first two sets, the Huskers the next two, and then Penn State prevailed 15-11 in the fifth.
Last year's five-setter in the regional semifinals in Lincoln might challenge 2008 for drama. The Huskers were down 2-0 in sets and facing two match points. But they rallied to win and then swept Washington to make the final four.
How about more recent history? In their meeting this season, the Huskers swept the Nittany Lions at State College, Pennsylvania, which is something that doesn't happen often. That Sept. 22 match was the Big Ten opener for both teams, and it's Penn State's only loss. Nebraska lost four matches this season, but none since falling at Wisconsin on Oct. 11.
The Nittany Lions are a senior-laden team; those players were freshmen in 2014 when Penn State won its last NCAA title. Hitter Simone Lee was named Big Ten Player of the Year, averaging 3.90 kills per set. Haleigh Washington is an outstanding middle blocker, averaging 3.06 kills per set and hitting .512. Both could be considered candidates for national player of the year.
Seniors Ali Frantti and Heidi Thelen also are major threats.
Rose said before the season that all the pieces were in place, but the team had been missing some crucial element the year before. The ability to close out tough matches, perhaps? Some pure form of classic Penn State killer instinct?
Even Rose wasn't sure exactly what it was, but he knew he needed to see something more from this year's group for Penn State to have a chance to win its eighth title. And he has. The Nittany Lions have won 24 matches in a row.
But the Huskers are on a similar roll: They've won 18 in a row. This was projected by many to be a year in which Nebraska was still very good, but perhaps not final-four good. They lost twins Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, fixtures in the program for four years, and defensive whiz Justine Wong-Orantes from last year. But behind the leadership of setter Kelly Hunter, the thunderous hitting of Mikaela Foecke and Annika Albrecht, the blocking of Briana Holman and Lauren Stivrins, and the motto of "With each other, for each other," the Huskers have made their third consecutive final four.
It's hard to pick a favorite in this match. The Huskers have lost just three sets combined over their last 13 matches, only one of those in NCAA tournament play. Penn State dropped a set in each of its first two NCAA tournament matches, but then won the other two in sweeps.
In short, these teams look like two freight trains headed toward the same destination. Somehow, one will have to knock the other off track.
No. 2 Florida (29-1) vs. No. 3 Stanford (30-3), 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
This second semifinal is also quite compelling. Florida has been to the final four seven times previously, but not since 2003. So it's been a long wait for the Gators, and they had to play their most dramatic match of the season to get to K.C.
Down 2-1 to USC in the regional final, the Gators were making a few too many mistakes and having trouble containing the Trojans' hitters. USC had upset Minnesota in the regional semifinals, and it looked as if another upset was about to happen, as the Trojans led Florida 24-23 in the fourth set.
That's when the Gators put on their rally caps, led by a senior class determined to make up for last year's disappointing NCAA second-round exit. They won three straight points to force a fifth set.
Once again, though, the Gators had to rally after falling behind 9-5. Then Florida reeled off six points and led 11-9. USC tied it at 11. Once again, though, the Gators went on a roll with four consecutive points -- including a lethal jump-serve ace from Carli Snyder -- to secure the match. Fittingly, seniors Shainah Joseph, Rhamat Alhassan and Snyder led Florida in kills.
So after regional victories against UCLA and USC, the Gators now face a third consecutive Pac-12 opponent, and it's the toughest of all: league champion -- and defending national champion -- Stanford.
The Cardinal, for what it's worth, went 4-0 against UCLA and USC in Pac-12 play this year, although one of the matches against the Bruins went five sets.
The Cardinal's regional final Saturday was drama-free, as they swept No. 6 Texas. The Longhorns had made the final four eight of the last nine years. But like last year in their NCAA championship match against Stanford, they weren't able to offset Stanford's power and size. The Cardinal hit .304 against Texas and outblocked the Longhorns 16-8.
Florida will have to face those same issues against a Stanford team that's one of the tallest overall in NCAA history. Three Cardinal regulars are 6-foot-6 or taller: Pac-12 Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer, Merete Lutz and Audriana Fitzmorris.
Setter Jenna Gray and libero Morgan Hentz were the best at their positions in the Pac-12, too. The Cardinal lost Inky Ajanaku, last year's final four most outstanding player, but Fitzmorris and Tami Alade have excelled at middle blocker. And you wouldn't think Stanford needed another outstanding hitter, but the Cardinal have one in freshman Meghan McClure.
Unlike the first match, it's easier to pick a favorite in this one. With all their weapons, it has to be Stanford. The Cardinal have a different coach from last year -- Kevin Hambly left Illinois to take over Stanford after John Dunning retired -- but a lot about the Cardinal looks similar to the team that triumphed in Columbus, Ohio, last December.
Still, the Gators have shown something special in coach Mary Wise's 27th season at Florida. She's said this is one of her favorite teams because of the players' personality and grit. No female coach has won the NCAA volleyball title, but Wise is the one who's come the closest, falling to USC in the 2003 final.
Realistically, the SEC co-champions are underdogs against the Cardinal, but they're pretty determined underdogs.