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Volleyball National Championship Preview: Nebraska vs Texas

We’ll give you all the strategy plus those intangibles to watch

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2023 Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

2023 NCAA National Championship
Nebraska (33-1) vs Texas (27-4)
When: Sunday, December 17, 2023, 2:00 pm (CT)
Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, FL
Watch: ABC

It is the night before the National Championship match in which your Huskers play The Texas Longhorns. Be sure to get your rest, set out your favorite Husker sweatshirt to wear tomorrow and dust off the TV so you can see every pixel during the video reviews; you are going to want to see that pinky move when Ally Batenhorst hits off Longhorn hands.

Here is what to expect during the match. Strategy.

Nebraska begins with a tough serving approach. They will serve to zones to disrupt Texas’ offense. Expect Lexi Rodriguez and Merritt Beason to serve short then on the next serve to long making the Long horn passers move. This also will make Asjia O’Neal pass. As a middle, she doesn’t pass many balls which makes her more likely to make a poor pass but even if she does pass well, Nebraska hopes she can’t pass and then run a slide which she hits well.

Texas is an excellent blocking team with good floor defense behind it. O’Neal is the best blocker on the team, and similar to Nebraska’s Bekka Allick in that she sees the hitter well and makes last second adjustments. Husker hitters must choose smart shots and be wise about when to take the terminating shot and when to play the ball into the block for a recycled point (getting the ball back off the block on purpose to try for a better set up).

The Longhorn defense is led by libero, Emma Halter. She was pivotal in the win over Wisconsin. Nebraska will work to attack away from her and force people OTHER than Halter to dig the ball. Texas plays defensive specialists for all of their front row players except Madisen Skinner (more on her later). The DS trio of Halter, Keonilei Akana and Carissa Barnes pass most balls but Skinner and second outside Jenna Wenaas pass some too.

Wenaas is a junior outside hitter that transferred from Minnesota last off season. She has been streaky for Texas this season but played well against the Badgers earning 10 kills. She is a player the Nebraska block and floor defense can shut down. They won’t be able to shut down Skinner or O’Neal completely, those two will earn kills, but Wenaas is a player Nebraska will consistently block or dig her attack.

A dug attack turns into an offensive opportunity. If Texas, Wenaas, gives Nebraska a ball they can dig, then the offense needs to run and run fast to earn a kill off that dig.

But this is all prelude. Truly, the Texas offense runs through Skinner. She receives a third of all sets from freshman setter, Ella Swindle. Skinner is most efficient from the backrow but is a threat anywhere on the court.

She averages just under five kills per set and has a full range of shots at her disposal making her very tough to stop. Skinner would have gotten my vote for Player of the Year, and given that this is her third national title game (she won with Kentucky before transferring to Texas last season and winning with them) do not expect her to shrink in the moment.

Nebraska will attempt to match Skinner up with Beason blocking in the front which also puts Bergen Reilly playing floor defense while Skinner is front row. Beason is a great blocker and Reilly is really good and floor defense. If the Huskers can slow Skinner down, say, keep her below a hitting average of .250, the Huskers will hoist the trophy.

Here are the intangibles that will make a difference.

This has been a magical season, from the stadium match to getting that Wisconsin win in Lincoln, to that super stressful Arkansas game. This team is special. Wonderful personalities, great chemistry, just the right blend of fun and fury.

It starts with the coaches, recruiting not just talent but recruiting for personality. What does it take to be a great libero and what does a great libero do to make a setter better and what strengths does a setter have that is most well suit a specific type of hitter? Cook and his staff have got that figured out with this team.

Look, would Sarah Franklin or Anna DeBeer or Ajsia O’Neal be good on this team? Maybe. There is no denying there are fantastic, all-world level talent out there. But would they be a good fit? We focus all season on the technical aspect of the game; blocking and serving patterns and rotations, but you don’t get to this point without something extra.

There are intangible aspects of any team that make them different, and special. You can’t put your finger on it exactly, but you’ve seen enough volleyball to know it when you see it. And when you do, you can’t look away.

Nebraska will rely, now, on that chemistry, and a few blocks, to take them all the way through the end. They don’t always need words, precise steps or plan for scenarios. They know where their teammates will be, how they will react, and how to best leverage their specific talents to achieve results. And this is why we’re 33-1.

There are no weaknesses. Not really. Oh sure we’re better at some things than we are at others. And for sure, Wisconsin was taller. Pitt was more athletic. Arkansas was faster. But those were not the most important factors in the match.

Have you ever been to a beach and watched kids try to build a sand wall against the waves? And they try and put more sand over here, maybe dig a moat over there. But the waves keep coming, and then after a while the kids finally surrender, and watch the steady drumbeat of the waves ceaselessly undermine, then swallow, the castle whole. This Nebraska team is the waves.

Maybe not singularly powerful, with no one spectacular moment. Just a steady, unstopping, fully encompassing force from which there is no escape. You can’t pick on any one area to achieve results. Build your block over here, Beason flies in from the backrow. Serve to a zone over there and Laney Choboy covers while Rodriguez passes the ball. They are a unified, unwavering TEAM.

And so from the fan perspective, it is just pure joy. To see volleyball played like this is such a rarity, and we should appreciate it for what it is. The full manifestation of a team game, without a single shining star but rather players doing their job which makes those around them better, making minimal errors, six players working in perfect synchronicity like an engine in a race car firing on all cylinders, in perfect timing.

I think we all had a sense about what this team could be in the first few weeks, but this has exceeded our most lofty expectations. Texas is really good and getting better each match. Their coaching staff is also really good, and they have a plan they think can work. But Nebraska is a volleyball team machine; it lacks nothing. If hypothetically you could add any player in the country to the roster for this championship game, you wouldn’t. And that is a tough thing to beat. Huskers in four. GBR.

Nebraska (33-1)
#2 Bergen Reilly 6’1’’ FR Setter
#5 Bekka Allick 6’4’’ SO MB
#6 Laney Choboy 5’3’’ FR DS/L
#7 Maisie Boesiger 5’6’’ SO DS/L
#8 Lexi Rodriguez 5’5’’ JR DS/L
#9 Kennedi Orr 6’0’’ JR Setter
#10 Caroline Jurevicius 6’2‘‘ FR OH
#11 Hayden Kubik 6’2’’ SO OH
#13 Merritt Beason 6’4’’ JR OH
#14 Ally Batenhorst 6’5’’ JR OH
#15 Andi Jackson 6’3‘‘ FR MB
#22 Lindsay Krause 6’4’’ JR OH
#27 Harper Murray 6’2’’ FR OH
#44 Maggie Mendelson 6’5’’ SO MB

Texas (27-4)
#1 Ella Swindle 6’3’’ FR Setter
#2 Emma Halter 5’5’’ SO Libero
#5 Bella Bergmark 6’2’’ JR MB
#6 Madisen Skinner 6’2’’ JR OH
#7 Asjia O’Neal 6’3’’ SR MB
#10 Carissa Barnes 5’7’’ SR DS
#12 Keonilei Akana 5’9’’ JR DS
#13 Jenna Wenaas 6’1’’ JR OH
#14 Jordyn Byrd 6’4’’ FR MB
#15 Molly Phillips 6’5’’ SR OPP