OMAHA, NE—If the past is a prologue, Saturday’s NCAA Division I women’s volleyball match should be a classic.
“It seems like every time we play it goes five,” Nebraska coach John Cook said of his opponent, Texas.
That was the case Sept. 4 when the homestanding Longhorns defeated the Cornhuskers in five sets; But much has changed since then. Nebraska’s Amber Rolfzen, a second-team All-American, sat out that match. She had five kills and four block-assists in the Cornhuskers’ four-set win Thursday against Kansas.
That was also Ebony Nwanebu’s only match of the season for Texas. Nwanebu, who’d been the national Freshman of the Year before transferring from Southern California, had 22 kills against Nebraska but has not played since due to various injuries.
“I think it's not going to be the exact same match up as it was in the beginning of the season,” Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter said. “We both have our game plans that we go with and then there's just a little bit different personnel.”
Texas’ Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani, a freshman, has emerged since the early season when she missed nine of Texas’ first 16 matches, including the one against Nebraska. She’s had 37 kills in her past four matches, including a season-best 15 in Thursday’s win against Minnesota.
“I’ve just been building, each game, each practice,” Bedart-Ghani said after the win.
Texas expects middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu, a first-team All-American, to play Saturday. She battled leg cramps – a trainer used an ice bag to massage Ogbogu’s right quad during the Minnesota match – throughout Thursday’s win. Elliott said that Ogbogu practiced Friday and would be good to go in the final.
Her presence will be critical for an undersized Texas team. Minnesota exploited the Longhorns’ lack of size – outside hitter Amy Neal is listed at 5-foot-9 and setter Chloe Collins at 5-7 – Thursday, using numerous slide shots over Texas’ front line.
“This is the little team that could,” Elliott said after beating Minnesota. “We’ve got some matchup issues. Amy’s not a very big blocker, Chloe’s not a very big blocker. We’ve got to be smart, we’ve got to be good with our serving and get them off the net.”
Elliott added that his players have developed selective amnesia, forgetting about an opponents’ floor-smacking kill and moving onto the next point.
“We don’t always have to counteract it,” he said.
Texas also uses the slide with middle blockers Ogbogu and Molly McCage combining for 14 kills against Minnesota.
“We've got to get our blockers in the right spots. We have to get them over early enough, and then we've got to have our diggers understanding where the balls are going to be hit,” Cook said. “The best way to do it is to serve them and get them on a system so they can't run it.”
Nebraska had four players with at least nine kills against Kansas, including freshman Mikaela Foecke. She’s been remarkably consistent in the NCAA Tournament posting 12, 12, 8, 11, and 12 kills in five matches.
The teams were in the Big 12 from 1996-2010, after which Nebraska left for the Big 10. Nebraska and Texas, though, have continued to play.
“When Bill Byrne was out athletic director, he kind of created a rivalry with Texas,” Cook said. “They’re a great program and so I’m not surprised they’re here.”
And both teams are coming in hot. Nebraska has won 15 in a row, Texas 12.
Big (Red) Crowd
Thursday’s crowd of 17,551 was an NCAA Tournament record, and not surprisingly, the vast majority were Nebraska fans. The Century Link Center, which is about an hour northeast of Nebraska’s campus, will be sold out again.
“I think the fans are going to be all over us because it's Texas,” Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott said.
Amy Neal said she’d try to use the crowd as motivation.
“I think that whenever we have gone to their home court, it's smaller but it's still a huge arena filled with people. But I think it's fun when the crowd is against us,” Neal said. “They will be all over us like Jerritt said, but I think we embrace that.”
This is Nebraska’s 34th NCAA Tournament appearance, and Texas’ 32nd. Both teams are in the top five in tournament wins. A look at the list: