Photo by Pat Radigan
Story by Becca Mann
Florida ready to play in front of the “home” crowd after 18,000 fans showed at the Sprint Center up for the semifinals
Win or lose, Saturday marks a monumental night for the 2017 Nebraska volleyball team.
If the No. 5 Huskers can fend off No. 2 Florida, it will be the first team in program history to win two NCAA titles in three seasons. If NU (31-4) falls to the 31-1 Gators, coach John Cook said there will be nothing unforgettable about the night.
“Regardless of what happens in the finals, this team will go down as a legendary team in the chronicles of Nebraska volleyball history and Kelly [Hunter] will go down as one of the greatest setters ever to play at Nebraska,” he said. “Those guys have done an amazing job, and like I said, they’ll be legends.
“They’ll be talking about this team for a long time.”
NU vs. Penn State
Nebraska will be playing for its fifth national title, while Florida will be looking for the first in program history, and the first titel for a team led by a female coach.
Looking back to the start of the 2017 season, playing in the NCAA national title game didn’t seem in the cards for Nebraska. After last year ended with a sweep to Texas in the semifinal round of the tournament, the team said goodbye to seniors Andie Malloy, Amber and Kadie Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes.
The Huskers dropped their first two games while in Gainesville, Florida, for the VERT Challenge. Oregon (3-1) and Florida (3-2) handed Nebraska loses in an era many fans believed would be a rebuilding year.
A stunning 3-1 loss to Northern Iowa in September snapped NU’s six-game winning streak and dropped the team to 6-3 on the season. The Huskers would then drop a four-set game to Wisconsin during conference play less than a month later.
With a 13-4 record after the Oct. 11 Big Ten match-up, Nebraska winning a national championship seemed out of the question to Husker fans but to the team, it fueled their fight.
“From the beginning of the season, we knew that people were talking about how this would be a rebuilding year or something like that, and we just took that as motivation,” Hunter said. “We’ve used that every single day, and I think we’ve talked about it week in and week out. That’s something that our team has been thinking about is how we can get better and how to prove people wrong.”
The senior would be among just six Nebraska players to ever earn two championship rings. Hunter is joined by seniors Annika Albrecht and Sydney Townsend and juniors Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney. Senior Briana Holman, who redshirted that season after transferring from LSU, rounds out the group.
“Kelly and I were talking about it the other day,” Albrecht said. “It would be pretty cool to have four rings, two National Championships and two Big Tens.”
With a victory Saturday night, the team would join the 2015, 2006, 2000 and 1995 Nebraska sides as NCAA national champions. It would be the program’s fifth title, and fourth under Cook who is in his 16th year as NU’s head coach. Only two programs, Penn State and Stanford, have more national titles with seven a piece.
The match on Saturday night will cap off an eventful weekend for the team that saw its head coach inducted into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and four players honored as AVCA All-Americans.
Cook joins former NU coach Terry Pettit in the hall of fame and looked on as Hunter (first team), Albrecht, Foecke (both second team) and Holman (honorable mention) were honored on the 37th annual AVCA All-America teams.
On the court, Nebraska fought through five matches against No. 1 Penn State to earn its berth into the title game. It marked the second meeting between the teams after the Huskers swept at Rec Hall on Sept. 22 and handed the Nittany Lions their first sweep in 14 years.
The Huskers entered the tournament as the No. 5 seed, taking down Stony Brook, Washington State, Colorado, No. 4 Kentucky and PSU on its fight to the crown.
Even though the Huskers were seeded outside the top four and lost out on the opportunity to host a regional, Hunter said that hasn’t been the focus.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks our seed should be. We’re just doing it for this group of people that we have here right now,” she said.
Across the court, Florida coach Mary Wise and her Gator squad is also looking to make history with the first national title for the program. A win under Wise would also be the first NCAA national volleyball title awarded to a female coach.
In her 27th year as a coach, Wise has led the team to 23 SEC championships but only one team, her 2003 squad, reached the title match and ended the season with a loss to USC.
“This is a sport where male coaches do dominate, especially with championship teams,” said Florida middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan. “To be able to win in itself would be amazing. Just to create history at the University of Florida is another milestone that we really want to reach.”
Florida boasts five All-American of its own including Alhassan, a four-time AVCA honoree. The senior is joined by outside hitters Shainah Joseph and Carli Snyder, middle blocker Rachael Kramer and libero Caroline Knop in earning All-American accolades.
“The biggest thing we learned was that we could go far… We just kind of showed people the team that we thought we could be.”
NU senior setter
Both teams will enter into the match off five-set battles after Florida took down Stanford on Thursday night.
Nebraska will need to focus on shutting down Alhassan, who leads the country with 1.7 blocks per set. Against the Cardinal, she notched 17 kills on 29 swings while kitting .517. However, the Huskers will have Hunter in their arsenal, something they had to go without in that first match in Gainesville. Hunter was injured and NU hit just .155 on the day while the Gators posted a .214 mark.
Now with Nebraska on the verge of a rematch against Florida, and an opportunity for her second national title, Hunter is ready to lead her team into a monumental match, no matter what the outcome may be.
“The biggest thing we got out of that first weekend was knowing that we were a team that could be great,” Hunter said. “We were right there, right at the beginning.
“Like I said, the biggest thing we learned was that we could go far. We took that as a learning experience, rather than getting defeated. We came out strong, and we opened up the Big Ten great. We just kind of showed people the team that we thought we could be.”
The championship match will be broadcast on ESPN2 and can be streamed online through WatchESPN. Nebraska and Florida 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.