Fans who bought tickets to tonight’s Final Four matches got their money’s worth. In the first match, Texas won the first two sets to go up 2-0 over Stanford, then proceeded to lose the next three and become the only team to lose a 2-0 lead in the history of the NCAA volleyball tournament.
That was only the start of the evening.
The 2008 Husker team went down to the Penn State juggernaut 2-0, losing the first two sets 25-17, 25-18. The Nitts stretched their NCAA record set win streak to 111. It looked like another Penn State blow out before the Huskers came roaring back in the next two sets.
In the third set, Nebraska’s serving kept Penn State off-balance while the hitting improved. Hitting just .169 in the first two sets while Penn State hammered away at .403, the Huskers hit .348 while holding the Nitts to .203 over the next two sets, winning both 25-15, and 25-22. In sets three and four, the Huskers hit .348, while holding Penn State to .203.
The match stood tied at 2-2. The NCAA record-setting crowd of 17,430 of mostly Husker fans had to be exhausted by the time the fifth and final set started.
In the final set, the score bounced back and forth before Penn State scored three straight to take a 5-3 lead. After a Nebraska time out Penn State scored again to make it 6-3. Nebraska came back, tying the set at six, then scored two more to stretch their lead to 8-6. Both teams scored twice before Penn State took a time out with the Nebraska lead at 10-8. After the time out, Penn State reeled off six straight points to take a 14-10 lead. The Huskers would score only once more while the Nitts’ Megan Hodge pounded the final score home for a 15-11 final set and match score.
Penn State's Nicole Fawcett finished with 24 kills, while teammate Megan Hodge finished with 23 kills and 12 digs for a double-double. Nebraska's Jordan Larson finished with 17 kills and an incredible 18 digs for another double-double. Fellow Huskers Tara Mueller had 15 kills while Lindsey Licht finished with 13.
The Huskers lost a game in Nebraska for the first time in 96 tries, they lost for the first time at Omaha’s Qwest Center, and the Husker seniors Jordan Larson, Amanda Gates, and Rachel Schwartz lost their first game ever in the state. Larson finishes her career as the best all-around player in Husker volleyball history.
The story would end there if scores and stats were the only parts of the tale that mattered. What mattered is that the 2008 team didn’t quit fighting, just like the week before when they made an incredible come back at Washington and beat the Huskies on their home floor. They ended Penn State’s run of perfection and took them to the limit before losing a chance at a national title match while playing a level of volleyball of which no one expected.
If you missed the game, you missed the best volleyball I’ve ever seen. Both teams made some mistakes, but both played to the edge of their abilities. The fast, frenzied pace of the game and the number of amazing plays by both teams had to leave fans exhausted physically and emotionally by the time they filed out of Qwest Center to greet horrendous weather. It was collegiate volleyball of the highest level.
Nebraska's season ended tonight with the Huskers’ record at 31-3. They earned a Big 12 championship, shared with Texas, but more importantly they earned the respect of volleyball fans across the nation.
What a difference a year makes. Last year’s team had all the athletes, lost two games all season, but failed to reach the Final Four and finished as a major disappointment. This year’s team began with doubts that they’d compete well in the Big 12 and finished the season proving they deserved to be on a national stage.
Whether we like it or not, teams tend to be measured by the trophies they acquire. The 2008 team will prove to be an exception. They’ll be remembered most for an epic game they lost but went down fighting to the end.