Photo by Pat Radigan
Story by Becca Mann
The Big Ten co-champions will settle the score with a trip to the national title match on the line
For the Nebraska volleyball team, this weekend’s appearance at the NCAA Final Four in Kansas City, Missouri, will bring a familiar foe across the net.
Nebraska will begin play by matching up against the Big Ten opponent and co-conference title winner, Penn State. The Nittany Lions were 33-1 on the season and 19-1 in conference play with their only loss of the season coming from as a sweep at home at the hands of Nebraska. It was the first time Penn State had been swept at home in 14 years.
NU vs. Penn State
Fourth-seeded Huskers look to knock off Penn State in a Big Ten grudge match that also happens to be a national semifinal.
And while the Nittany Lions come into the match at 30-1, that “1” was a sweep at the hands of Nebraska to open Big Ten play. It was the first time PSU had been swept at home in 14 years.
The Huskers earned the No. 5 seed in the tournament after capping off a 30-4 overall and 19-1 Big Ten season with a share of the conference title.
The two teams are neck and neck when it comes to NCAA Tournament and Final Four appearances. Both are top-ranked powerhouses that allow the Big Ten to be arguably the toughest conference in the nation.
Nebraska punched its ticket to national semifinal play after taking down No. 4 Kentucky on the road in Lexington. The Huskers jumped to an early 2-0 lead, before a comeback by the Wildcats, a team that took its previous two games 3-2, pushed the match to four sets. While Nebraska hit just .174 in the third match of the night and committed six errors, the team came out swinging in the final set to hit its best on the night at .357 with 14 kills on 28 swings.
A win in Lexington propelled the Huskers to their third-straight Final Four appearance, a record for Nebraska.
“One thing coach always tells us is to dream big. I think we say it all the time and sometimes it’s a joke, but I think that’s real…I think we’ve all come in and we really do dream big. We dream of these big spotlight moments and the Final Four, and we dream of playing in the national championship every year.”
NU senior outside hitter
Early in the season after losses to Oregon, Florida and Northern Iowa on neutral courts, it didn’t seem likely Nebraska would be able to turn its season around. The loss to Northern Iowa came just days before the Huskers were set to hit the road for State College.
“So I’m like, the wheels have come off. I hope we can even survive the Big Ten and get to the NCAA tournament,” Nebraska coach John Cook said about his mindset between those matches. “But, like many years and sometimes after a loss, you learn a lot. And I think our team really learned a lot from that weekend.”
Nebraska emerged victorious against a team that many see as its biggest rival. The Nittany Lions have made 37 NCAA Tournament appearances followed by Nebraska’s 35. The teams are two of the most dominant in the country, something that Cook said keeps the Huskers hungry to catch up.
“Our match-up with Penn State, if you’ve followed the history of us, Nebraska-Penn State, we’ve had a lot of epic matches,” he said. “I’ve been having a lot of flashbacks to several years, 2008, 2011, last year and of course our match with them this year at Penn State. So it’s one of the, I think, most exciting rivalries, if you want to call it that, in college volleyball.
“They’re a lot of fun to play, and I think both teams bring out the best in each other. So it’s exciting for volleyball. Everybody has been chasing Penn State with what they’ve done over the last ten years. They set a really high bar. So we’re excited to play them.”
Cook said even though Nebraska has been the most competitive team he has coached against Penn State, it is not the only one that looks at the Nittany Lions as the team to beat year in and year out.
“I remember when I was coaching at Wisconsin in the Big Ten, Penn State was the team to beat. So everything you did was, okay, every decision make, how are you going to beat Penn State. The I come to Nebraska, you know, and we’re dominating the last decade early, and we’re winning and beating Penn State. Then all of a sudden, Penn State goes on a four-year National Championship run…so they’ve been the measuring stick for us on how we build our program and how we look at it is can we beat Penn State?”
The Nittany Lions were unable to achieve a perfect season because of Nebraska’s efforts early in the season. Thursday night’s matchup will be an opportunity for the co-champions of the Big Ten title to determine who really is the more dominant program.
Penn State leads the nation with a .345 hitting percentage and ranks fifth in with 3.08 blocks per set. Senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington is tied at No. 7 in the nation with 1.52 blocks per set and a .503 hitting percentage that ranks her at No. 1 in the nation. Senior outside hitter Simone Lee is also a big name on the team, leading with 490 kills on the season.
Nebraska middle blocker Briana Holman leads her team with a .355 hitting percentage and 2.42 kills per set. The Huskers have lost just one set in this year’s NCAA Tournament matches and allowed just 221 points, the fewest of any remaining teams.
Penn State dropped one set each to Howard and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds of play before sweeping Missouri and Michigan State to earn its way to the Final Four.
When asked about Thursday night’s match, Penn State coach Russ Rose wasn’t as eager to talk about Nebraska.
“I don’t spend all my time worrying or talking about Nebraska. You guys cover Nebraska, so it’s more appropriate that that’s the center of your attention,” Rose said when asked which of Nebraska’s past matches he has focused on leading up to the game.
“You look at this year’s team, I’m not sure I look so much at the match that we played earlier in the year,” Rose said, “but you look at the last couple matches the same as I look at our last couple matches. To see where the other teams were causing us some discomfort
Rose said he team moved on after losing to Nebraska, and was not focused on what the Huskers were up for the remainder of the season.
Heading into Thursday’s match, the Huskers are on a six-game winning streak against the Nittany Lions including last season’s regional semifinal in which Nebraska rallied back from a 2-0 deficit to knock Penn State out of the tournament. The Huskers are 7-3 all-time against the Nittany Lions in NCAA Tournament play and look to extend both their winning streak, and overall record with a berth into the national finals on the line.
“One thing coach always tells us is to dream big,” said senior Annika Albrecht. “I think we say it all the time and sometimes it’s a joke, but I think that’s real…I think we’ve all come in and we really do dream big. We dream of these big spotlight moments and the Final Four, and we dream of playing in the national championship every year.”
Final Four play begins between No. 5 Nebraska and No. 1 Penn State at 6 p.m. CT followed by No. 2 Florida and No. 3 Stanford at 8 p.m. CT at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
Matches will be broadcast on ESPN and can be streamed online or through WatchESPN. Nebraska and Penn State can be heard on the Husker Sports Network radio affiliates, including 107.3 FM and 1400 KLIN in Lincoln or AM 590 in Omaha. Online Radio will be available on Huskers.com or on the Huskers App. John Baylor and Lauren Cook will have the call.