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B1G Volleyball: For All the Marbles

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Wisconsin and Nebraska clash for the National Championship

6’ 9” frosh Anna Smrek deciding to have herself a day against unbeaten Louisville in the national semis.
Associated Press

How to watch:

Saturday, Dec. 18th

6:30 pm CST

ESPN2

I. Tell me about your team’s semifinal victory Thursday night

Kind of...: Gladly. Wisconsin took down undefeated and #1 ranked Louisville in a five-set barnburner: 25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 23-25, 15-9. The fifth set was tied at 6 when Kelly Sheffield challenged a net call and won a replay of the point. From that point forward, UW outscored L’ville 9-3 and won the match. The first set should go in a time capsule. Louisville hit .4 and lost because UW hit .412. The sideout %’s were off the charts and, in the days before rally scoring, that set might still be going on.

Wisconsin got contributions from all over as five Badgers recorded at least nine kills, Sydney Hilley had a double-double (58 sets (no errors), 11 digs), and Lauren Barnes was everywhere defensively (19 digs). But the hero of the evening was Anna Smrek. The towering frosh registered 20 kills and hit .704 (!!!) on the night, making the Cardinals pay for focusing too much on Dana Rettke. Smrek didn’t come out of nowhere. She became a key part of the rotation after Danielle Hart tore her ACL late in the nonconference season. But only a few weeks back, she only played in 3 of 5 sets against Minnesota, and hit -.071 in the Badgers’ second match vs. Nebraska. Good thing UW is done with Nebraska, right?

BRT: For the second straight match, the Huskers knocked off a top seed. For a team that, on paper, should have bowed out a round or two ago, this is pretty damn good! During the first set though, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be watching much more Husker volleyball this season, because the Huskers could NOT find their offense, and didn’t have the defensive control they usually have. Pitt outhit Nebraska .483 to .167 in the first set, which is not ideal and resulted in a 16-25 victory for the Panthers. Luckily, the Huskers righted the ship and showed the grit (and offense) they displayed during the Texas match. They came back to win the second 25-17. The Huskers didn’t let up from there, winning the next two 25-20 and 25-22 to, improbably, find themselves in the finals with a chance to win their sixth national championship. (This is their tenth trip to the final, and the fourth in the last seven seasons.)

Also, they are heartwarming AND kick-ass and you should cheer for them:

II. They won, but what does your team need to fix if they want to win Saturday night?

Kind of...: Louisville was the first major conference team to go undefeated through the regular season since 2013. So, it’s probably pretty impressive that UW knocked them off despite committing 14 service errors. At the same time, that’s 14 service errors. That NEEDS to get cleaned up before Saturday night.

BRT: Well, not getting outhit .483 to .167 at any point in the match would probably be a worthy goal. It took the Huskers a bit of time to get the offense going, and if they’re to have a chance in this one, they can’t let Wisconsin get that much confidence early. Clean serving will also be key—that hasn’t been a strength of the Huskers’ at times this season, though they’ve been on the right side of things during the tournament. They need to keep that trend going. Finally, they need to be confident. This certainly isn’t John Cook’s first rodeo, and it isn’t a first for some of the people on the team. But the Huskers have been notably freshman-heavy all season, and upperclassman leadership is going to have to help set the tone for the younger players.

III. What scares you the most about your opponent?

Kind of...: Not too much. Only that they probably have the best coach in the country and they’re playing the best volleyball they’ve played all year. John Cook is 65 and looks like he’s 35. He has undoubtedly made some sort of devil’s bargain and/or has an aging painting in his attic. Either way, no matter how many consecutive wins UW has over Nebraska, it’s going to take everything Wisconsin has to defeat the Huskers. Libero Lexi Rodriguez made 1st-team All-American as a frosh and is the sort of player who could frustrate the Badger offense by keeping points alive. Lauren Stivrins, Kayla Caffey, and Madi Kubik are all capable of providing plenty of offense. And, it’s Nebraska.

BRT: Well, we’ve only won one of seven sets against them this year so that’s a little scary. This could be the reverse of Nebraska-Illinois, where three sets were insufficient for the Illini to take one off the Huskers. Pretty much everything about Wisconsin is scary, isn’t it? There’s really no way to dress that up. The Huskers can win, but it’s going to take a near-perfect performance by them, as well as Wisconsin making some blunders.

IV. Who wins?

Kind of...: In December of 2000, Nebraska, behind first year head coach John Cook, capped off an undefeated season with a five-set victory over Wisconsin, who Cook had coached until leaving for Nebraska. Since then, Nebraska has added four more titles, while Wisconsin is still looking for their first.

That changes Saturday night.

Badgers in four.

BRT: If the Huskers play up to their potential start to finish (like the Texas match) and if Wisconsin lets the enormity of the moment get in their head, the Huskers have a chance. Kind of... and I have a vehement disagreement about whether or not Wisconsin has ever lost the mental game in an NC match, or whether they were simply outmatched on previous attempts. I clearly remember a frozen Wisconsin, and in particular, a certain superstar player standing across from Stanford like a (very tall) deer in the headlights last time they were in this position. We have agreed to disagree about what we saw in 2019. The Huskers’ greatest asset in this one (besides the genius of John Cook, which is in fact a hell of an asset) may be the weight of expectations—this is supposed to be Wisconsin’s year, and the Huskers are playing with house money. Wisconsin has been here before, and come up short. It’s possible this motivates them, it’s also possible it freezes them. On the other hand, it’s possible that the Husker freshmen are awed by the moment, and that they’re the very tall deer in the headlights this time around.

So far, I haven’t seen Wisconsin looking tight this tournament, so I think they’ve found a way past that. Honestly, I think the Huskers have about a 10% chance of beating the Badgers. It’s not much... but I’m sure they’re going to give it their all. Here’s hoping for a bit of Christmas magic for the Big Red!

Kind of...: To be fair, most of my vehemence was over the initial, clearly overstated, implication that UW has “historically” blown it in the championship match. Given that the 2000 loss was to an undefeated and #1 Nebraska team and the 2013 loss was to B1G Champ and #2 PSU (winning their 5th title in 7 years), there’s simply no way to suggest some historical trend is present, regardless of what happened in 2019. As for that season, Kathryn Plummer and Co. led Stanford, at UW’s expense, to their third title in four years, something exceeded only by PSU’s four straight titles from 2007-2010. It’s possible the moment got to UW and they were swept because they came up small. But that was a Stanford senior class capping careers that were more successful than any Texas, USC, or Nebraska player can claim. So, if that counts as UW blowing it, I will simply concede that BRT and I have different grading standards.

But, at the end of the day, we have maintained a civil disagreement about the topic. THIS year is getting settled tonight. Wisconsin SHOULD win. If they don’t, BRT’s thesis will be significantly strengthened.

And, in the B1G picture, it’s simply been a tremendous season. B1G VB has been the best in the nation for quite a while, but an all-B1G championship match may just mark this as the best season in conference history (if not, it’s close). With all the super seniors playing this year, the overall depth of talent was off the charts. The conference will finish with a 22-7 record in the NCAA tournament, with three of the seven losses being in H2H matchups with other B1G schools. Two of the other four losses were to Final Four participant Pittsburgh.

And if you’re a fan of a team other than UW or Nebraska, and you’re looking for a brighter tomorrow, well, there’s nothing wrong with hoping, but these two teams aren’t going away. Yes, the Badgers will lose Dana Rettke, Sydney Hilley, Gio Civita, Lauren Barnes, and Danielle Hart (who was having a great season, pre-ACL injury). And yes, Nebraska will say goodbye to Lauren Stivrins, Kayla Caffey, and Nicklin Hames, among others. But the B1G freshman of the year—Julia Orzol—is a Badger. And the B1G DPOY—Lexi Rodriguez—is a freshman Husker.

Either way, make sure you watch tonight.

Poll

Who is the National Champion?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    Wisconsin
    (96 votes)
  • 25%
    Nebraska
    (33 votes)
129 votes total Vote Now