Two sweeps in Minneapolis this weekend allowed the Huskers to advance to the national semi-finals. The matches against Kentucky and Oregon were played at the Sports Pavilion on the Minnesota campus. Next weekend, the matches will be at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.
The Huskers advanced by beating the Oregon Ducks decisively in the regional finals in a sweep 25-22, 25-23, 25-17.
Nebraska’s defense held the Oregon offense below the .313 they’d managed on Friday night, but .250 is still a very respectable hitting number. The Huskers, however, hit .345 led by 16 kills from senior outside hitter and captain Mikaela Foecke who hit .400. Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had 11 kills on 19 swings to hit .526.
While the Huskers didn’t score a ton of points on blocks, the team only had five scoring blocks on the afternoon, they got a lot of touches that made defense easier for the backrow, or repelled the Oregon attack to get the Ducks out of system. Oregon had two blocks. The Husker backrow notched 53 digs led by 17 from Foecke and 15 from both sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun and senior libero Kenzie Maloney.
One of the questions heading in to Saturday was how well the Huskers would defend against Oregon setter August Raskie who’d gotten ten kills the night before against Minnesota. She didn’t have as many opportunities against the Huskers as she did against the Gophers as the passes were not as tight on the net. Nebraska also did a better job of picking up the dumps as the night went on.
The Huskers has now won 12 straight matches. The last match the Huskers lost was in Lincoln against this Thursday’s upcoming opponent, the Illinois Fighting Illini. In that match neither offense looked great, with Illinois hitting .187 but Nebraska managing only .099. The teams have split the season series with each team winning on the road. In Champaign, Nebraska hit .271 and Illinois .157.
This one is the rubber match. Illinois looked VERY good in beating Wisconsin in their regional final. Senior setter Jordyn Poulter is one of the best in the country. She not only chooses the right set, but puts the ball consistently in a position so that her hitters can convert at a high rate. It makes the Illinois offense very difficult to defend.
Nebraska’s serve-receive looked rough over the weekend in Minneapolis. The Huskers do a great job of converting out-of-system attacks (Balls where the setter is well off the net or isn’t getting the second touch at all), so perfect passing isn’t a necessity to Huskers success, but when you’re one of the last four teams playing, it helps your cause if you can be in system.
On the flip side, the Husker passing game has, overall, looked much better late in the season. It’s also worth noting that seating and walls beyond the baseline in “The Pav,” as it’s called, do make depth perception a little difficult and may have played a role. Target Center will feel more like Devaney in that area.
On the other side of the bracket are Stanford and BYU. Each team comes in with only one loss on the season. BYU beat Stanford in Provo in August. BYU lost their last match of conference season to Loyola Marymount. So far, the teams who’ve met once, even though it was in the earliest part of the season, have duplicated that result. However, that match was a five-setter and BYU has a very unique home court advantage. I think Kevin Hambly’s Cardinal take this one to advance to the championship match.
Nebraska-Illinois is a tough one to call. Former Husker assistant coach Chris Tamas has led a resurgence in a program that was the national runner-up in 2011. Illinois has a lot more experience on the court than the Huskers will, especially at the critical setter position. Familiarity with one another’s schemes likely mean the teams will be very prepared for each other.
As mentioned previously, I was not sold on the Huskers as National Champions until after the regional final last season. The Huskers’ road to the title wasn’t without hiccups, but the team was convincing in winning the title last year. This year, Foecke and Maloney will go down as the only Husker volleyball players to play in four final fours.
As badly as Poulter wants to will the Illini to this title, I think Foecke’s experience as the two-time Most Outstanding Player of the tournament carries the day. Both previous matches between these teams went four sets this year. There’s no reason to believe it’ll be a sweep this time.
As far as Saturday night’s championship match? Stanford’s outside hitter Kathryn Plummer is the favorite for National Player of the Year. Tami Alade in the middle has been nearly unstoppable in the tournament. It’s hard to pick against this team. However, no number one seed in the tournament has won it all in the last eight years.
It’s too soon to pick the winner of the championship match Saturday night. How the winners of the semi-finals play will tell us more.
Both semi-final matches are on Thursday night and will be televised on ESPN. Stanford-BYU will be at 6:00 pm Central with the Nebraska-Illinois match at 8:00 or after the first match, whichever comes second.
CornNation will have two of us on the ground in Minneapolis. Follow my Twitter, coach_ty6 and my Instagram, coachty6, While I’m terrible at social media, I’ll try to be live in the Target Center and around Minneapolis over the course of my time there.