DI Women's Volleyball: Old rivals, new faces meet in national semifinals
OMAHA, NE— Of the four media sessions Wednesday in advance of the women’s volleyball semifinals, Kansas’ was by far the longest. The Jayhawks (30-2) have plenty to talk about, going from nice story to great story with a five-set win against top-seed Southern California last Saturday. Kansas trailed, 13-9, in the final set before winning with a six-point run to reach the final four for the first time.
“It’s still super crazy,” All-American setter Ainise Havili said. “I’ve watched those last six points like a thousand times.”
The Jayhawks will now face an old rival, Nebraska, in Thursday’s second semifinal at 8:30 p.m. Central time.
The Century Link Center in Omaha is sold out for the event, buoyed by Nebraska’s rabid, and nearby, fan base. The Huskers (30-4) averaged more than 8,000 fans for home matches this season.
“Didn’t every school get 200 tickets?” Kansas coach Ray Bechard joked. “Obviously, we’re going to be a little outnumbered.”
The Jayhawks, whose only losses were to fellow semifinals team Texas, can make history in a second way Thursday; it is 0-86-1 all-time against its former Big 12/8 rival.
“I wish I’d have been part of that one,” Bechard, who is 0-26 against Nebraska, said. “Obviously, Kansas hasn’t been competitive enough over the years in that situation, and Nebraska has been an elite volleyball program for a long time.”
Nebraska is in the final four for the program's 12th time. Kansas has won nine matches, including this year’s four, in the NCAA Tournament, while Nebraska has won the same number in just the national semifinal alone.
The teams last played in 2010 after which Nebraska joined the Big Ten. None of the current players have faced each other.
“That [0-86-1 record] goes way back, probably before I was born,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “There’s four teams that can win a national championship. That’s the most important thing.”
Kansas features the most balanced offense of the four teams, with All-American Kelsey Payne, Tiana Dockery, and Madison Rigdon, sharing swings.
“Their setter’s their leader; she’s an emotional player and they are an emotional team,” Cook said. “They’re going to be hard to defend.”
Kansas has the most aces per set of the four teams, adding pressure to a defense.
“We have great passers and I don’t think they get enough credit. I trust them to be able to pass,” Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter said.
Hunter and teammate Alicia Ostrander grew up in Nebraska. They recalled being preteens, anxiously watching the Huskers win the 2006 national championship.
“That’s when I realized I wanted to be a Husker,” Hunter said.
The match has added meaning for Bechard, who considered Terry Pettit – Cook’s predecessor at Nebraska – a mentor.
“When I was at Barton Community College and he was the head coach [at Nebraska], he would go out of his way any time I would pester him with questions. I worked his team camps, and that transitioned to me getting the job at Kansas,” Bechard said.
Now, he and Cook are friends.
“In coaching you don’t have a lot of friends you’re close with in your conference,” Cook said. “There’s not a more deserving guy to get there.”
Two teams unfamiliar with each other will face in Saturday’s first semifinal at 6 p.m. Texas, which is in the final four for the fifth straight year, will face Minnesota. The Gophers are in their fourth semifinals and first since 2009.
The Gophers (30-4) overcame an 0-2 start to win the Big Ten. Freshman Samantha Seliger-Swenson took over at setter, recording 11.7 assists a set, enough to be one of two freshman named second-team All-American.
“It was pretty easy,” coach Hugh McCutcheon said of giving the keys to a rookie. “The kid can play.”
“She’s very skilled even though she’s a freshman,” outside hitter Paige Tapp said. “We trust that she knows what she’s doing.”
Daly Santana took about twice as many swings as any of her teammates. Amy Neal had similar numbers for Texas. Despite knowing what’s coming, Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said Minnesota is difficult to contain.
“It’s the fastest go-set in the NCAA that we’ve seen,” he said.
Texas (29-2) is the only team with final four experience. That makes middle blocker Molly McCage smile.
“We know exactly what we’re going to do today, tomorrow,” McCage said. “We’re comfortable.”
Final Exams: Academics don’t stop during the final four. Minnesota’s Paige Tapp took two finals at the team hotel Wednesday. Several Kansas players planned to do likewise.
“There’s a big group of is that have to take one tonight,” Jayhawk Tayler Soucie said.
Texas, perhaps showing their experience in these settings, planned finals for early December.
“I finished two weeks ago” Molly McCage said. “I’ve been cruising.”
All Midwest: The final four teams are usually dominated by Pac-12 schools, but that conference is absent this year. Big Ten and Big 12 own the spotlight.
“Way back, Nebraska and Texas opened the door, and then Penn State, that it was a non-west coast championship. Now you see teams like BYU and Kansas that are breaking the doors down,” Nebraska coach John Cook said.