I’m going to give you all the volleyball you can handle, but before we get to that, I need to share this:
Twitter is responsible for much bad in the world... but it also brought us this, so that’s nice.
Anyway, the Final Four gets underway tonight! It’s a bevy of blue bloods: Nebraska, Penn State, Stanford, and Florida. It’s tough to get much better pedigree than that. Consider:
- Stanford: defending National Champions, winner of seven NCs, and appearing in the Final Four for the 21st time
- Penn State: winner of seven NCs, appearing in its 13th Final Four
- Nebraska: winner of four NCs (latest was 2015), appearing in its 14th Final Four, and third in a row
- Florida: eight appearances in the Final Four, but have never quite gone all the way—could this be the year?
Since 1994, when the oldest players in the tournament were born, Stanford, Nebraska, and Penn State have won 17 of 23 National Championships.
So you know. Nobody’s first rodeo.
#5 Nebraska vs. #1 Penn State
6 pm (CENTRAL) on ESPN, Sprint Center in Kansas City
I’m not going to spend any significant time on Stanford v. Florida, because this is a Big Ten blog, and probably you don’t care that much. But that’s likely to be a fine match too, and it will air after Nebraska-Penn State.
The smart money for this one is probably on Penn State. They’re an insane 33-1 on the season, boast a fully mature roster with the highest rated senior class ever, and seem to have a certain air of “Team of Destiny” about them. It just seems like Haleigh Washington and Co. should have another National Championship in them. And, beyond all of that, they’re playing great volleyball right now.
So why does Nebraska, a team that started the year expected to have a “rebuilding season” after losing three All-Americans, have a chance? Because that glaring “1” in Penn State’s record came to... Nebraska. The Huskers swept this Penn State out of their home gym to open the conference season, the first time anyone has managed to do that in 14 years. Quite simply, the Huskers manage to have Penn State’s number more often than anyone else. The two teams have met 30 times over the years, 10 times in the tournament, and two times in the Final Four. Nebraska holds the edge in the series, 20-10 overall, and 7-3 in the postseason meetings. “But it must be noted,” says gopsusports.com, “that nine of the ten post-season meetings occurred in the state of Nebraska.” The Nittany Lions better hope that proximity to home doesn’t breed Husker success—because Kansas City is only a little over three hours from Lincoln, and there’s likely to be plenty of red at the Sprint Center. The vaunted PSU senior class has beaten Nebraska only once in eight tries.
The Huskers—as noted, were supposed to be rebuilding, instead of winning a share of the Big Ten and in the Final Four—aren’t a perfect team. They have, at times, shown an inability to lock down at the end of a set and finish off a team, creating more drama than is perhaps strictly necessary. And the serving specialists have at times been less, uh, special than hoped. This team lost to UNI before conference play. Nevertheless, they’re also 5-0 against teams ranked in the AVCA Top Ten, and they finished conference play having only dropped 11 sets—the lowest number in program history. The team chose as its motto “With Each Other, For Each Other,” and, less officially “Why Not Us?” In spite of the pre-season doubt, “statistically, this is the best Nebraska volleyball team of the last five years – highest hitting percentage, best serving team, fewest aces allowed. In fact, the Huskers were a combined 320 points better than Big Ten opponents, the highest differential since they joined the league.” (huskers.com) Perhaps, with low (relatively—this is still Nebraska volleyball we’re talking about) expectations throughout most of the season, this team found its groove more easily.
But about that Penn State team. Simone Lee. Haleigh Freaking Washington. If you follow college volleyball at all, you’ve heard of these gals. They’re as good as it gets, and you have to believe that knowing this is their last go-round is lighting a hell of a fire under them. While their eyes are on the bigger prize looming on Saturday, you’d better believe that they also know that 1-7 career record against the Huskers... and that it rankles. For them, what could be better than to charge into the finals, and get to knock off the hated Huskers in the bargain? Nothing. Nothing could be better. The motivation here is off the charts.
And remember how I said Nebraska only dropped 11 sets in conference play? Well, Penn State dropped... 12. These teams are well and evenly matched, in nearly every respect, reflected, fittingly enough, in their sharing of the Big Ten Championship.
So I don’t know how Thursday night is going to go down. My head says Penn State is going to grit their way to victory, and will not be denied this time. But my heart says... maybe this unlikely Husker team can find a way to pull out one more surprise. All I know is that I’ll be there, cheering my head off and hoping that the Huskers live to fight another day.
- Sydney Townsend, who won the Elite 90 Award for the second year in a row. The award is given to “the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA's championships.” Townsend has a 3.83 GPA in biochemistry, so once she finishes her excellent volleyball career, she seems well-poised to launch another excellent career.
- The All-Americans! Many Big Ten schools are represented (check out the full list) but since this is about PSU and Nebraska, I’m going to focus on that:
Kelly Hunter (1st team)
Annika Albrecht (2nd team)
Mikaela Foecke (2nd team)
Simone Lee (1st team)
Haleigh Washington (1st team)
Kendall White (2nd team)
Time to vote! Who’ve you got?
This poll is closed