Stanford and Nebraska, storied volleyball programs from distinct landscapes, set for dream final
MINNEAPOLIS -- One school is an international brand, known for its countless high achievers in all fields and 117 NCAA championships. The other has no shortage of famed alums, either, but its 20 NCAA team titles are more cherished by the state as a whole because the school itself is so much the center of attention.
Stanford, in mostly sunny Palo Alto, California, vs. Nebraska, in Lincoln, the heartland of America. Safe to say you could never confuse the two places.
When it comes to volleyball, though, they have a lot in common: They are the sport's royalty. When they meet Saturday night for the national championship at the Target Center (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2), you will see programs that consistently have been among the best for decades.
"Some people would probably say it would be better to have BYU and Illinois in the final," Nebraska coach John Cook said of the teams that fell in Thursday's semifinals. "Just because they're different teams. But Stanford's a great program, and we're chasing their national titles and Penn State's."
Stanford and Penn State both have seven national championships and have been in every NCAA tournament since the event started in 1981. Nebraska has five NCAA titles and has been in the NCAA field every year but the first. Whomever wins, either the Pac-12 or Big Ten will be the volleyball champion for the 11th time in the past 12 years. In fact, the only times since 1999 that one of those two conferences didn't win the title were in 2000 and '06, when Nebraska was still in the Big 12, and in 2012, with Texas of the Big 12.
This is Stanford's 16th appearance in the final -- the most of any program -- and the ninth for Nebraska. The programs have faced off in the NCAA final once previously, when the Huskers won their third title in 2006 in Omaha, Nebraska, by a 3-1 score. But they've met just twice since then: a Nebraska win in August 2008 and a Stanford victory in August 2014. In the all-time series, dating back to 1976, Stanford leads 8-6.
As for this season, even though the Huskers were defending champions, the Cardinal have had the bull's-eye on their backs since the start. Stanford has lost only one match: Aug. 31 at BYU. The Cardinal avenged that with a sweep of the Cougars on Thursday. Led by two-time national player of the year Kathryn Plummer, Stanford has all its bases covered with standouts, several of whom were part of the 2016 NCAA title team. Those players also experienced losing in five sets to Florida in last year's semifinals, a match in which they didn't think they stuck together.
"I think it helps that we've been through this," said Cardinal junior Morgan Hentz, who had 20 digs against BYU. "A lot of times when it gets down to the final four, it comes down to composure and being poised during these matches. Last year, I don't think we did that as well. [Thursday] we made sure to stay together and communicate on a high level."
Of course, Nebraska has a good deal of experience, too, led by seniors Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, now in their fourth final four. Foecke was most outstanding player of the tournament in 2015 and 2017.
But one of their losses to graduation was redshirt senior setter Kelly Hunter, who was such a key leader on last season's team. Now the Huskers have a freshman setter in Nicklin Hames, but that's not necessarily any obstacle to winning a title. Stanford did it in 2016 behind current setter Jenna Gray, who was a rookie that year.
While Stanford has won 31 matches in a row, Nebraska -- expectedly -- went through more growing pains. The Huskers' highest AVCA poll ranking was No. 2, in the preseason. They got as low as No. 8, and entered the NCAA tournament at No. 6. Nebraska lost five of seven matches during a stretch of difficult Big Ten play in October. But since then, the Huskers have won 13 consecutive matches, nine of them sweeps.
Thursday was the toughest because they had to come back from 0-2 down against Illinois. But they did that, too.
"We all just dug down deep and genuinely believed we could do that -- turn the match around," said Maloney, who had 20 digs. "We just played with a lot of heart."
Cook echoed that, saying, "This team has become very resilient; they believe and trust each other."
Heart, belief and trust are clearly important, but it also comes down to getting and developing talent. Stanford and Nebraska have done both for a long time. Stanford's championships have been divided between two coaches: Don Shaw in 1992, '94, '96 and '97 and John Dunning in 2001, '04 and '16. If the Cardinal win Saturday, it will be under a third coach, Kevin Hambly. He left Illinois after the 2016 season to replace Dunning, who retired.
Hambly took over a team that had just won an NCAA title led by a group of freshmen, so he knew things were great in the talent department.
"What's exceeded my expectations is living in Palo Alto, being on campus," Hambly said. "There's these people doing amazing things. I wasn't sure if it would be some kind of highbrow, looking down people's noses at each other. But it's this really humble, really casual, high-achieving place. I just love being there."
Like Hambly, Cook is a native Californian. He came to the Huskers as an assistant in 1988 under Terry Pettit, head coach from 1977-99, who won the 1995 NCAA title. Cook was head coach at Wisconsin from 1992-98, and then returned to Nebraska as an associate head coach in 1999. He took over the program in 2000, when Nebraska won its second NCAA title. The Huskers have since won it all in 2006, 2015 and 2017.
Cook is fond of saying, "There's no place like Nebraska," pointing to the program's record of 253 consecutive regular-season sellouts dating back to 2001. The Huskers moved from Nebraska Coliseum, which held just a little more than 4,000, to remodeled Devaney Center in 2013, which doubled their average attendance (8,206). That boosted Nebraska volleyball into profitability, a rarity among college programs outside of football and men's basketball.
Nebraska fans are known for traveling with their team, and it's about a 6 ½-hour drive to Minneapolis from Lincoln. So expect a ton of Huskers supporters at the Target Center on Saturday.
But both programs will be well represented on court and with their respective histories. From the perspective of the short list of teams who have done it best, this is a dream final.