'They always dream of moments like these': Previewing the NCAA volleyball final four

Stanford up against Minnesota in semis (1:43)

Missy Whittemore and Tiffany Greene look ahead at No. 3 Stanford's matchup vs. No. 7 Minnesota in Pittsburgh and what challenges they may face. (1:43)

Like all sports, women's volleyball has its blue bloods, and three of them -- Stanford, Wisconsin and Minnesota -- have battled their way to this week's NCAA final four in Pittsburgh. Then there's the new kid in town, Baylor.

The No. 1 seed Baylor Bears and No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers will meet first, at 7 p.m. ET Thursday at PPG Paints Arena. That's followed by the No. 3 Stanford Cardinal vs. the No. 7 Minnesota Gophers, with both semifinals on ESPN and the ESPN app. Saturday's championship match (8 p.m. ET) is on ESPN2/ESPN App. Both are regular-season rematches from September, Baylor winning 3-1 at Wisconsin and Minnesota beating Stanford 3-1 on a neutral court.

"I think every little girl, when they start playing volleyball, they always dream of moments like these," said Wisconsin's Molly Haggarty, whose Badgers have swept all four matches, a 12-0 run of sets that has exemplified how they won the ultra-competitive Big Ten title. "And I know our whole team has."

Defending national champion Stanford had three sweeps, although the last one, in the regional final against Penn State, required a big rally in the first set. And Stanford's regional semifinal match against Pac-12 foe Utah was, as most expected, a five-set tug-of-war after which the Cardinal breathed a sigh of relief.

Minnesota had the wildest ride of the four, saving two match points in the second round against Creighton, then coming back from down 2-1 vs. Florida in the regional semifinals, before sending home the unseeded Cinderella, Louisville, in a final sweep.

Baylor, meanwhile, had advanced to the Sweet 16 only once before in program history, but you wouldn't have known that based on how poised the Bears have looked so far. They swept their first two matches and won 3-1 twice in the regional. Three of those wins -- against USC, Purdue and Washington -- came against volleyball's two power conferences, the Pac-12 and Big Ten, and programs with significantly more NCAA tournament experience than Baylor.

But Baylor has made the past irrelevant in this season of firsts, as the Bears tied Texas for their first Big 12 title and now go to their first final four.

The stage is set; now let's take a look at what we'll see Thursday in the Steel City.

Baylor (29-1) vs. Wisconsin (26-6)

Thursday, 7 ET on ESPN/ESPN App

Overview: Baylor never seemed to doubt itself in this magical season; it was everyone else who needed convincing. Consider everyone convinced.

Baylor's ascent began when coach Ryan McGuyre took over in 2015. Last year's 3-2 loss at Oregon in the second round was a springboard into this season. Their victory at Wisconsin on Sept. 6 put them on the national radar.

But Big 12 teams have to pass the Texas test to really be seen as national contenders, and Baylor didn't on the first try, losing 3-0 in Austin in October. The Bears' 3-2 victory in Waco over the Longhorns in November, though, served as validation.

Wisconsin started the season 4-4, a reflection of a tough schedule but also the fact that the Badgers just needed a little time to get things together.

"This group has put in the work, and there's a calmness about them," coach Kelly Sheffield said. "We've got some really good leadership. You make one play, can you do it again? Can you just stack those things on top of each other?"

The Badgers have been able to do just that.

Star watch: Wisconsin will be the exception in this final four -- and in most final fours, for that matter -- in that its big gun is not an outside hitter. It's 6-foot-8 middle blocker Dana Rettke, who leads in kills per set (3.79) and also hitting percentage (.401) among the primary attackers, plus is the top blocker (150, 1.47 per set).

It's typical for middle blockers to have better hitting percentages, because their attacks tend to be less frequent and lower-risk than those of hitters. But Rettke combines the best of both worlds: She's a high-volume and high-percentage terminator who also is an elite blocker -- almost like two players rolled into one.

While Rettke will wow the crowd with her size and versatility, Baylor's Yossiana Pressley (5.37) will do it with kills that are somehow powerful and elegant. She seems to float in the air longer than anybody else before uncoiling her strike.

Setter watch: Wisconsin's Sydney Hilley (12.30 assists per set) was the Big Ten setter of the year, and Baylor's Hannah Lockin (11.48) earned the same honor in the Big 12. Both are juniors who bring a steadying presence to their teams.

All-purpose player: Baylor fifth-year senior middle blocker Shelly Stafford ranks second on the team in kills (2.57) and blocks (0.95) per set, and is tied with Lockin for the lead in service aces (23). Haggerty is second in kills per set (3.57) for Wisconsin, and fifth in blocks (0.41) and digs (1.13) per set.

Defensive gems: Senior Tiffany Clark leads Wisconsin with 419 digs this season. Baylor senior Tara Wulf has 330.

Notable stat: Both teams' numbers are pretty similar, but the Badgers have a 177-111 edge in service aces.


Utah has no chance on Plummer's spike

Kathryn Plummer gets up and hammers down a spike to win the point for Stanford.

Stanford (28-4) vs. Minnesota (27-5)

Thursday, 9:30 ET on ESPN/ESPN App

Overview: Stanford is in the final four for the 23rd time and is looking for its ninth NCAA title. It would also be the third for the four-year members of the senior class, a group that has also been boosted by graduate transfer Madeleine Gates at middle blocker. If the Cardinal win the championship, they'll match Stanford's feat of taking three titles between 1994 and 1997.

Stanford was dominant last year in losing just once on the way to the championship, but this season was tested more. Part of that was losing two-time national player of the year Kathryn Plummer to injury for 10 matches. But in some ways, this may also have helped the rest of the team grow. A low point during Plummer's absence was getting swept at UCLA on Oct. 25, but Stanford hasn't lost since.

The Cardinal's size is usually a problem for every foe. But in Minnesota's victory over Stanford on Sept. 14, the Gophers were able to out-block Stanford 13-12. And they hit .247 to the Cardinal's .185.

Minnesota has been to the final four five previous times, but made the final just once, losing to Stanford in 2004. In 2016, the Gophers' last trip to the final four, they also lost to Stanford.

Star watch: Plummer's missed time due to injury meant she wasn't eligible for Pac-12 honors, but she has her mind on another national championship. She leads Stanford in kills per set (5.01) and had a huge regional, averaging 6.62 kills per set and hitting .443 in the two matches. Junior opposite Stephanie Samedy leads a very balanced Gopher attack with 3.74 points per set.

Setter watch: Stanford's Jenna Gray (11.54 assists per set) is a three-time Pac-12 setter of the year who has been an All-American the past two seasons. She's familiar with fellow senior Kylie Miller, who spent three seasons in the Pac-12 at UCLA but transferred this year to Minnesota, which needed short-term setting help. With 10.18 assists per set, Miller has provided that.

All-purpose player: Junior outside hitter Meghan McClure does everything for Stanford; she's fourth on the team in total points (266) and second in digs (305). Redshirt junior middle blocker Regan Pittman is also high-impact, ranking first for the Gophers in blocks per set (1.43) and fourth in kills per set (2.19).

Defensive gems: Senior Morgan Hentz is Stanford's all-time leader in digs (2,270) with 563 this season. Sophomore CC McGraw leads the Gophers with 433 digs.

Notable stat: Stanford has 271 more kills than its opponents this season, compared to 59 more for Minnesota over its foes.