Did you watch the Penn State-Nebraska match last night? If you didn’t, you missed out, because it was as fine a volleyball match has been played all season. Before the match, Nebraska coach John Cook expressed an expectation of another “epic match”… and, well, it turns out that the man knows what he’s talking about when it comes to volleyball. “I told you guys all week Penn State-Nebraska bring out the best in each other,” Cook said. “I said it was going to be an epic match, and it was. Everybody should have gotten their money’s worth.” The heavily Husker-skewed crowd (an estimated two thirds of the nearly 19,000 in attendance wore Husker red) was treated to five sets of heart-stopping, back-and-forth volleyball and spectacular plays made by some of the best college volleyball players in the country. The match lasted two hours and fifty-one minutes—the longest semifinal in NCAA history, and befitting of the “battle of the titans” nature of the match.
The Semi-Finals: Nebraska def. Penn State, 3-2
25-18, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-11
Nebraska emerged from the latest PSU-NU battle as the victors, surviving a PSU match point in the fourth set to push the match to a decisive fifth set, and Penn State’s vaunted senior class ends their career with a 1-8 record against the Huskers, and have lost seven straight to Nebraska. This is the third time Nebraska and PSU have met in a Final Four, and the first time Nebraska has gotten the better of the Nittany Lions in that situation. “I’m not disappointed in the players or the university that I work at, but I am certainly disappointed at the outcome of the match,” said longtime PSU head coach Russ Rose after his team was denied a shot at an eighth national title. “If you finish 33-2 and people don’t look you in the eye because they think you messed it up, it’s a tough gig,” Rose added.
Although there was an overall high level of play, nerves were apparent, and PSU helped the Husker cause by contributing fourteen errors from the service line, while landing only four service aces. Meanwhile, the Huskers landed ten service aces during the match, including four from Kenzie Maloney. The ten aces marked the first time since 1997 that a team recorded double digit aces in either an NCAA semifinal or final. As a Husker fan, Maloney’s serving prowess was especially exciting to see—early in the year, she went through a spell of serving struggles that left fans wincing when she stepped up to the service line. To see her go from that point a couple of months ago to having a monster serving performance in the Final Four is the kind of thing you love to see in college sports—and a testament both to Maloney’s hard work and Cook’s faith in his players to work through their issues.
Maloney had a terrific night in other ways too—the Husker libero flew around the court and made a number of dazzling diving digs that seemed impossible. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that the likes of Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington were knocking over balls with jaw-dropping power. "I wouldn’t say (digging their attacks was) hard, I would say fun," she said. "It’s really fun. She (Simone Lee) takes huge rips and it’s fun to get the dig for your team and win the point after that." There were several times that Lee, in particular, would line up and just nail the ball into the Husker court and cause the crowd to gasp aloud at the display of raw power. However, the Huskers came up with an astonishing 90 digs for the night—Maloney dug up 21, Kelly Hunter had 23, and Mikaela Foecke had 19.
But the Huskers weren’t just on the defensive. Several players had great offensive nights as well. Brianna Holman, perhaps with a bit of extra motivation after disappointingly being left off the All-American teams, did a great job of finding the few holes that existed on PSU’s side of the court and blasting in some momentous kills, finishing with a season-high 13 kills. Foecke blasted in 19, and freshmen Jazz Sweet and Lauren Stivrins slammed down 12 and 7 kills, respectively.
Adding to the drama of the match was the PSU ability to bury the Huskers early in sets two, three, and four. Nebraska found itself at various points in the evening facing deficits like 6-1 and 10-4, as they did in the fourth set. Each time, however, the Huskers clawed their way back into the set, and though they didn’t win each of those comeback efforts, they won the one that mattered—the fourth. With the Nittany Lions threatening with match point, Brianna Holman landed a kill. After that, freshman phenoms Sweet and Stivrins each blasted a kill to push the match to a fifth set.
In the fifth set, Penn State grabbed a 6-4 lead, but the Huskers poured on five straight points after that, and never looked back, instead charging ahead into Saturday’s final, and crushing the hearts of Penn State’s players and fans. They finish an incredible season as Big Ten co-champs and a 33-2 record—those two losses both coming to, of course, the Huskers.
The Finals: A Fitting Finale with Florida
WATCH IT: Saturday, Dec. 16 at 8 pm CENTRAL on ESPN2
Once upon a time, all the way back in August, the Huskers started the 2017 season in Gainesville, Florida. They lost to Oregon... and they lost to Florida. Granted, they were without star setter, Kelly Hunter, which probably had a bit to do with it. But the situation sets up to be absolute poetry for whichever team wins tonight—either Florida bookends their first-ever National Championship season with wins over college volleyball blueblood Nebraska... or Nebraska finishes a season that at first appeared to be a rebuilding job that stumbled out of the gate by vanquishing the very foe that dealt them an early loss. Either way, if you like storylines in your college sports viewing, we’ve got them here.
Florida, in spite of their lack of national titles is no pushover. As noted, they’ve beaten Nebraska this season, and to get to this match, they knocked off Stanford (also known as the defending National Champion) in five sets on Thursday. They are 30-1 this season (their lone loss coming to Kentucky, who was the #4 seed in the tournament), and while the SEC does not offer the competition of the Big Ten, they’ve proven in the tournament that their record is not merely for show.
The Gators are led by All-American first-teamer Rhamat Alhassan, Shainah Joseph and Carli Snyder (both second-team All Americans), and third-team honoree Rachael Kramer. Physically, the Gators are a tremendously tall team—Kramer at 6’8” and Alhassan at 6’4” are joined by two other players who are 6’3”. Meanwhile, the Huskers top out with Lauren Stivrins 6’4” and Foecke and Sweet at 6’3”. All season long, Nebraska has sought to disorient and stress other teams with the serve, and this will presumably continue to be a big part of the strategy—to throw Florida off at the start of the point to avoid letting the height get too comfortable and dug into position.
This is, like Thursday’s battle, a primo coaching matchup as well. Russ Rose is the nation’s winningest coach, while Mary Wise and John Cook are #2 and #3 respectively. However, Wise has had a bit of a drought—before Thursday, Florida was 1-7 in the Final Four, and has not appeared in the Final since 2003. Wise, who has been the Gator coach since 1991 is surely hoping that this will be the year that her team finally breaks through that final hurdle. But the Huskers are a big hurdle.
Once again, the crowd is expected to monumentally favor the Huskers. But Florida’s players aren’t worried about the potential hostility. “I think it’s a championship match, and there’s nothing about it that we want to be easy,” said Carli Snyder. “It’s so cool that we do get to play in front of a loud crowd, even if it is going against us. To have this match be such an exciting moment for volleyball, where there are so many people tuning in and so many people coming out to see great volleyball, I think that’s something we really are embracing. It’s going to be so much fun.”
Mikaela Foecke is excited about the crowd too, and happy it will be backing her and her team: ““They amaze me every time we run onto the court,” she said. “Be it in Devaney or here, I mean, when you go out on Devaney, I still get the chills every single time we’re running out because it’s so loud. But coming out here, it’s something on a whole other level. There were 18,000 fans here last night. That’s insane; it’s a volleyball game. I’m sure three-fourths of them are Husker fans, and I’m sure that tomorrow night it will be even more.”
With any luck, the red-clad masses will have much to be noisily jubilant about when the match ends. But either way, the experience of following this “rebuilding” team that dared to ask “Why not us?” as they wildly exceeded all expectations except their own has been a privilege and a whole lot of fun.
Go Big Red.
Who wins it all?
This poll is closed
The Huskers with Heart
The Gargantuan Gators