A terminator, a joker, a late riser and a diver all threaten to steal the show at volleyball's final four
KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- Volleyball's final four includes four of the top five seeds in the tournament, so you know you're going to see some great team play this week in Kansas City.
But which players might just steal the show? We've got four you're going to want to keep a close eye on in Thursday's semifinals featuring No. 1 Penn State vs. No. 5 Nebraska (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) and No. 2 Florida vs. No. 3 and defending national champion Stanford (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) at Sprint Center.
Whether they're setting up the offense, connecting on big kills, getting a key block or somehow keeping even the hardest-struck ball from hitting the floor, these are players who will make you say, "Wow."
Penn State: Simone Lee has the finishing touch
Under coach Russ Rose, the top-seeded Nittany Lions have a very good offense with multiple dangerous weapons.
"It's kept the defense guessing and gives the opponent a harder time in scouting us," senior outside hitter Simone Lee said. "I think it's shown throughout the Big Ten season.
"It's made it even more exciting. It's really cool to know that so many of your teammates are so good. It's cool to have that trust factor. We can set anybody."
Indeed, but there's nobody better at Penn State than the 6-foot-1 Lee, who leads the Nittany Lions in kills with 448 (3.90 per set). When they want a big kill, they know where to get it. Lee was named most outstanding player of the University Park Regional and a first-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. And Rose has praised Lee, the Big Ten Player of the Year, as someone who's always committed to taking care of business.
Penn State won its seventh NCAA title in 2013 when Lee was a freshman reserve waiting for her chance. She started part of the season her sophomore year. By 2016, she was Penn State's primary weapon.
Lee had a swing on match point last year against Nebraska in the regional semifinals, but it was blocked. The Huskers climbed all the way back from down 2-0 to win, but Lee said she hasn't dwelled on that.
Nor on the fact that the Huskers also handed Penn State its only loss this season, 3-0 in September, a match in which Lee had 15 kills and 13 digs.
"What matters is what's on your side of the court," she said. "Our chemistry is off the charts."
Nebraska: Huskers follow the leader, Kelly Hunter
A setter can steal the show, you ask? Really? Oh, yeah, when the setter is as talented, as energetic and as in charge as Huskers senior Kelly Hunter.
"She's the life of the party, the class clown. She's always got some prank," Nebraska coach John Cook said. "And she always knows what to say to me, to her teammates. She just has that personality that if the party is going, she's running it, and she's determining how much fun everybody's having."
The Huskers and their fans have had a lot of fun with Hunter at setter; they're in their third consecutive final four. She was named the Big Ten Setter of the Year and an AVCA All-American. Cook has called her one of the best leaders he has had. Hunter's mother, Lori, was a setter at Nebraska from 1977-80, and her sister, Lindsey, set for Missouri from 2002-05.
"It was something I took on as a natural role, no matter what team I was on or even for a group project for school," Hunter said of her leadership instinct. "The first aspect is having respect from whoever you're trying to lead. If you're not working hard and doing the things you need to do, then no one's going to want to listen to you."
Along with her 1,160 assists this season, the 5-foot-11 Hunter has 84 kills and 57 blocks. She is accomplished at the dump kill, but it's blocking that she really loves.
"Getting a stuff block is probably my favorite feeling in all of volleyball," Hunter said. "To be a great blocker as a setter, to touch balls and frustrate people -- I think that's huge because the ball is in your area so much."
Florida: It's Shainah Joseph's turn
Another player might have transferred or given up. Florida's Shainah Joseph waited, watched and waited some more. The 6-foot-1 redshirt senior weathered three positions in five years, a redshirt season and a nagging injury to arrive at this pinnacle.
Now she's the starting right-side hitter for a Gators team in the final four for the first time since 2003. Named a second-team AVCA All-American, Joseph is hitting .415 with 168 kills and 25 errors in her past 14 matches. She earned most outstanding player honors at the Gainesville Regional.
The French Canadian, whose first name is pronounced "Shine-UH," is indeed a bright star, "one of the reasons we're here," coach Mary Wise said.
"This is so special," Joseph said. "I have always loved the people at Florida. Volleyball sucked at many points, but the people always kept me here. For volleyball not to suck anymore and for it to actually be fun, it's been so worth it."
Wise leveled with the Ontario, Canada, native during the recruiting process. While Joseph would have a role, it wasn't initially going to be where she preferred, the right. She would be a middle. Joseph didn't hesitate. "I fell in love with Mary as a coach," she said. "I also fell in love with the school and the Gator Nation feel."
By her sophomore season, Joseph had developed the physicality to be at least, she thought, a second option at middle. "We had our first tournament and in our first game, I got to start," she recalled. "Then they put Rhamat Alhassan -- she was a freshman -- in for the second set and she never came off the floor."
Alhassan is, of course, a three-time All-American and the current NCAA leader in blocks.
Joseph played in just 17 matches that year, sparking Florida to a 3-2 rally over Illinois in the regional final by hitting a career-high .538 and adding five blocks. She went into the offseason rejuvenated. Then, over coffee, Wise asked her to redshirt on the final day of preseason training camp.
Joseph was dumbfounded. Florida was deep at the hitter position for 2015, Wise explained, but the Gators would rely on her in 2016. Joseph made peace with the decision and waited her turn again.
Eager to play in 2016, albeit on the left side, Joseph sprained her ankle early. "At one point I remember saying, 'I'm never going to play. It wasn't meant to be,'" she said. "By the end of the season, I was upset with everything. I went home and was hesitant about even going back to Florida."
She's finally right where she belongs. Brimming with confidence given the versatility she developed by playing multiple roles, she didn't even let a match point against USC last weekend rattle her.
"You guys pass the ball for me and I will take you. I will take you there," Joseph told her teammates in the huddle. "They picked me up for so many years, that's the least I can do.
"Hit the ball? Yep, I can do that."
Stanford: Morgan Hentz defending the champs
Morgan Hentz used to dive; she still does. Only no pool is underneath her anymore.
"I really like Sport Court because you slide better," Hentz said of the springy surface at Sprint Center.
A Kathryn Plummer kill can be daunting, but equally electrifying is a Hentz dig, often predicated by a dive to the floor. The sophomore libero has an uncanny ability to know where the ball is headed even before the opposing hitter has cranked up her arm.
Plummer said she's relieved that the only place she has to stare down Hentz is in practice. "She's there before the hitter even knows where she's going to hit it. I'm glad she's on my side," Plummer said.
Cardinal coach Kevin Hambly describes this from practice.
"She was standing outside the 10-foot line and Kathryn hit the ball outside, and the block was going to be late and Morgan could see it," he said. "She took four steps and dove before Kathryn even made contact. I watched that and thought, 'You can't teach that.'"
Hentz thrives in the thinking game of volleyball, deciding the sport was a better fit for her than diving. "Growing up, I loved diving and thought it was a potential sport for me to pursue," she said. "I couldn't see myself doing it ultimately because there's more of a perfectionist mentality with diving because it's all based on subjective scoring."
But it did wonders for her flexibility, and her overall athleticism is off the charts. Hentz excelled at soccer, too, and enjoyed basketball, where no loose ball was safe.
"I had to wear kneepads to play," she admitted.
Her 630 digs last year were a single-season high for Stanford. This year she has 461 and counting.
Hentz's anticipation continues to elevate her game. She sizes up the set, the line of approach of the hitter and the arm swing. She studies film for hitter tendencies. Her determination to keep a point alive never disappoints. You never know what you'll see from her, including the splits.
"It's incredible," said sophomore Caitlin Keefe, also a defensive specialist. "After the last game I asked her, 'Are you even human?'"