Nebraska and Wisconsin already played twice this season so the outcome of the National Championship match might not seem to be in doubt; but it is. While the result of those matches was the same, Wisconsin won, the Nebraska coaching staff and players believe they might even say they know that everything that went wrong in those matches was controllable on their side of the net.
Nebraska can change the outcome by serving tough and to target. Nebraska can earn points by playing more defense. Nebraska can win by being smart and aggressive as attackers.
Only 21 days have passed since Nebraska last lost to Wisconsin on November 26th. 21 days doesn’t seem like many days until you think about all this team has done in those days. First, Nebraska hasn’t lost since that match and not only have they not lost, they have beaten Purdue, Campbell, Florida State, Illinois, Texas and Pitt. These match wins are important and impressive.
Obviously, the two most recent wins are huge as they are part of advancing in the NCAA tournament. Clearly the Purdue win is meaningful because the Boilermakers proved they are a quality team in this tournament too. But none of these teams are Wisconsin.
So while these match wins are necessary, it is excellent that Nebraska has had solid weeks of practice in the gym. Unlike the conference season with weekday matches followed by weekend match, the NCAA tournament schedule gives teams some solid days in a row in their home gym. When the Huskers have time to prepare, they do well.
Nebraska played very well during set 1 against the Badgers in November. They executed the game plan and were focused on the key points their coaching staff emphasized to them. In the next three sets, they were not able to follow the strategy and this resulted in losses.
The Huskers were zeroed in at Gregory Gym in Texas. They knew who to serve, and then they served her, and tough. When the set wasn’t perfect, they knew where to tip or push the ball to cause trouble for the Longhorn defense. This is match preparation translated to match execution. What Nebraska did against Texas was beautiful, because they were playing the coaches game plan and they were doing it with trust and confidence.
The game plan to beat Pitt was executed with nerves during set one, but thereafter serves went to target with a thump behind them. Setting tendencies were remembered and acted upon. Lauren Stivrins knew Rachel Fairbanks would set the middle so she waited right in front of Serena Gray. When Gray did get the set, Stivrins lined up for the block just as the scouting report told her to do. This is discipline, focus and a high level of execution.
The same thing can happen against Wisconsin. These teams clearly know each other after playing twice and also playing so many common opponents. This means the teams and coaches are able to more accurately prepare for the other team coming into Saturday night.
For example, Nebraska may have prepared the speed of Pitt’s offense but until they actually saw and played against it they were only simulating and it took one set to get the hang of the real deal. They don’t have to simulate Wisconsin, though, they’ve played against it.
The coaching staff also benefits from watching multiple teams try to beat the Badgers. Those teams used strategies that were effective in part. They revealed chinks in the armor. Louisville served to Julia Orzol and it worked. She does not always pass well. They also put a discipline block in front of her and turned the ball back on Wisconsin and Orzol. This is also a really similar strategy to what Nebraska did to Pitt player Leketor Member-Meneh.
By serving Member-Meneh and putting four strong hands in front of her as a block, Nebraska limited her to a .150 hitting percentage. They can do the same thing to Orzol. Orzal will earn kills but it will reduce her impact on the match.
The Pitt middles did damage in set 1 against Nebraska. They did this because the serve was not difficult enough. Passers were able to put the ball right on top of the setters head and she could set anything she wanted. An easy serve is like a gift to the opposing team; a kill, gift wrapped. The Wisconsin middles will also do damage if Nebraska serves easy balls.
If, however, serves are pushing setter Sydney Hilley off the net then she has fewer offensive options to choose from, and out of system (off the net) play has an increased chance of error. So, forcing serve receive passes off the net reduces offensive options AND increases the probability of error, both are good for the Huskers.
The mental space that each team enters this match is very different. Both teams have super seniors, both teams talk about final four and championship expectations in their goal setting and both know they can win. Wisconsin hasn’t ever won. Wisconsin feels like a ram, ready to charge the door to the national championship trophy; to burst through with all their pent up desire. Nebraska feels more like a hawk, ready to take flight. “Let’s just see how high we can fly”.
Both teams are highly motivated and you won’t find an ounce of give in on the court tomorrow.