We’re now a little over 24 hours away from the first serve between Stanford and Minnesota, which will mark the beginning of play in the national semifinals. The Cardinal and Golden Gophers are first up, at 7:30 p.m., while defending-champion Nebraska and Texas are set to face off at 9:30 p.m. inside Nationwide Arena. As the teams put the finishing touches on their preparation, the head coaches and a few student-athletes from each squad spoke to the media on Wednesday afternoon. Here’s a recap of what went down
Thursday, Dec. 15
Of the four programs in the national semifinals, the sixth-seeded Cardinal are the only team that was not there a season ago. Early on this year, Stanford looked to right the ship and turn its season around, something coach John Dunning pointed out in his opening statement to the media.
“It's been a very interesting journey for our team,” he said. “It didn't all fit together exactly right away. That happens sometimes. But it's been a pretty amazing ride the last two months. [We] Switched our lineup up, and we played pretty much with the same lineup for the last two months. And we've gotten better and better. It's been very fun to watch.”
What makes the Cardinal’s journey to Columbus even more interesting, to borrow the word from Dunning, is the mixture of inexperience and experience. The team starts four freshmen, but also has veteran leaders like redshirt senior Inky Ajanaku. And it doesn't hurt to have coach Dunning, who has been at the helm for 32 seasons.
“They're doing amazing,” Ajanaku said of the freshmen. “When we had our first practice, we came in and we saw what the freshmen could do. We were blown away by the talent.”
Morgan Hentz and Kathryn Plummer, two of the freshmen starters, were on hand to address the media. Plummer was recently named National Freshman of the Year, an accomplishment she said she was “surprised” to earn.
“I know there's a lot of people in the class that are very deserving of it. And I'm just so humbled to be it,” she said.
The play of Hentz, the libero, is rather impressive as well because the 5-foot-9 Kentucky native spent her high school career as an outside hitter. She was Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention.
“It was definitely an adjustment changing to just being a libero, because you're used to being able to put the ball away and maybe controlling the game a little more,” she said. “But I really like the role I have now. And it was definitely an adjustment. But thanks to my teammates, I was able to transition into it.”
Like the other semifinal matchup, Stanford and Minnesota played once during the regular season. The Cardinal won in four sets. Even though the game was in August and Minnesota has changed its tactics since then, Dunning said it’s still “really valuable”.
“They play with so few errors," Dunning said. "It adds to what you know because you played them. Everybody else you just know on tape,” he said. “We are much different from the first time we played them — they might not even recognize us.”
Minnesota might be the only program in Columbus that has yet to win a national championship, but its players and coach feel they are in a great position to change that because of the team’s success this year in the Big Ten — one of toughest conferences in the country.
“Our Big Ten schedule this year was very difficult, especially our last four games — all against top-ranked teams,” said senior outside hitter Sarah Wilhite. “It was a good challenge for us and really prepared us well going into the tournament.”
Coach Hugh McCutcheon, who is in his fifth season guiding the Golden Gophers, agreed with Wilhite’s assessment of the Big Ten.
“It's a very special time in our sport in this conference, no question,” he said. “The Big Ten was awesome in every sense of the word.”
In last year’s semifinal, the Golden Gophers fell to Texas in four sets. As valuable as that experience on the floor was, sophomore setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson said it has been helpful outside the lines, too.
“I think we know what to expect coming in, all the outside distractions and stuff like that outside of volleyball,” Seliger-Swenson said. “So it is a little bit more familiar since we were here last year.”
Seliger-Swenson, whose average of 11.60 assists per set is No. 8 in the country, was recently named Big Ten Setter of the Year. Wilhite took home the conference’s player of the year award.
It’s clear the Gophers have the talent necessary to defeat Stanford. They also have the momentum, having won 14 matches in a row. Their last loss came to conference rival and semifinal counterpart Nebraska on Oct. 23.
Plus, in the quarterfinals Minnesota swept UCLA, a team which beat Stanford twice in the regular season. Time will tell whether this is the Gophers year, but McCutcheon believes his team has been through enough this fall to make it happen.
“You're either battle-weary or battle-tested by the time you get to this point,” he said. “And I think for a lot of us we're battle tested.”
Head coach John Cook, who is in his 17th year leading the Cornhuskers, led off his team's media availability with a statement recalling a drive his team took in the middle of October. The Cornhuskers were in Columbus to play Ohio State, which plays on its campus inside St. John Arena, but they headed a mile or so south toward the city’s downtown to take in the sights of another venue.
“We made sure we drove by this Nationwide Arena here, and it’s been one of our goals [to get back here],” he said. “You’ve seen some of the hashtags, #1492, for Columbus. That was kind of one of our themes to get here.”
The first of four team press conferences has begun. pic.twitter.com/R3DQEY8P32— OhioStateWVolleyball (@ohiostatewvball) December 14, 2016
Indeed, top-seeded Huskers have made it to Columbus, giving them a chance to defend their national title. Cook acknowledged the “expectations” of returning to this point and the “target on our back,” but the way the Cornhuskers have handled it pleased him.
“We’ve been working on this since January, and our team has done amazing job of working,” he said. “I’m just very proud of our team.”
Three Cornhusker student-athletes joined Cook at the podium: senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes, the team’s leader this season in digs with 471, Amber Rolfzen, a 6-foot-3 senior middle blocker who lead the team in blocks with 160, and her twin sister Kadie Rolfzen, an outside hitter who attacked at a .299 clip this season en route to leading to the team in kills with 472.
All three players were announced as AVCA All-Americans on Wednesday morning. Amber Rolfzen was a third-team selection, while Wong-Orantes and Kadie Rolfzen earned spots on the first-team. For Kadie Rolfzen, it is her fourth All-American selection, making her just the second player in Nebraska history to achieve the feat.
“I don't really know what it means as far as — that was one of my goals coming in, but at the same time it's not really a team goal,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “So I guess my team goal would be to win another national championship and be the first team to do it back to back. As exciting as it is for the individual awards it's just my goal, and our goal is just to win that national championship again.”
To repeat, the team knows it will need to continue surfing the wave of momentum it picked up in its last two games — first against Penn State and then Washington in the quarterfinals.
“The Penn State match last weekend we were down 0-2 and we went into the locker room and Coach is kind of like, OK, we're going to see what you guys are made of. And obviously got those next three sets,” Amber Rolfzen said. “And the Washington game the next day, Coach was, like, you guys are going to pick it up a whole another level. I think that's one thing we can take away from last weekend is we did take it up a whole another level and I'm excited to see what we can do this weekend as well.”
The Cornhuskers’ semifinal opponent on Thursday is Texas, which is the team they defeated a year ago to win their fourth national title in program history. The two teams also met in August. In both matches, Nebraska won in three sets. Cook said preparing to face the Longhorns again isn’t too “complicated.”
“They have athletes and you have to stop them. And so it's not like we have to go reinvent a whole new game plan or do stuff like that,” he said. “It's just more of making sure our players are understanding what we're going to deal with and they're going to do some things we probably can't stop and try to get them to understand how we can beat them in three games by two points … So it's line it up and here they go. And that's how they've always been.”
Coach Jerritt Elliott’s Longhorns are making their fifth consecutive trip to the national semifinals, having won in 2012 and then, of course, falling last year in the finals to Nebraska. Elliott was asked about his team’s early-season meeting with Nebraska, but he was not concerned too much with the outcome.
“At the beginning of the season, we tried to play tough competition to kind of learn about our team and see where our strengths and where our weaknesses were for coaches to exploit us,” said Elliott, who has coached the Longhorns since 2001.
“We weren't very smooth at the beginning of the year, but we knew we had the pieces. We knew we had the senior leadership and the buy-in to be able to get back to this point,” he added.
One of those senior leaders Elliott referenced is Chloe Collins, a 5-foot-7 setter who was named a second-team AVCA All-American. Collins joined the Longhorns in 2013, the year after the program's last national championship. She’s been to the national semifinals each year, but has yet to secure the coveted hardware.
“I think it would be just absolutely awesome," Collins said. "But just being here and having the opportunity to compete is awesome. Every year, you know all girls want to be in this position, Just to go out and have the opportunity is awesome,” she said. “I'm so proud of my team and what we accomplished this year. And to go out and win it all would just be amazing.”
The two other Longhorn student-athletes who addressed the media on Wednesday were Ebony Nwanebu and Micaya White. Both players were not on the floor during last year’s runner-up finish because of injuries. They each took a redshirt season and on Wednesday were named first-team AVCA All-Americans.
Nwanebu, who is a transfer from USC, seemed overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment.
“I really don't know how to explain the feeling,” she said. “I never thought I'd get back to playing at this level because [I was] coming off an injury. I accepted the fact it would never be like I was my freshman year, so to be back in that form is a great feeling for me.”
White, a redshirt freshman outside hitter, said she was “truly blessed” to be back from her injury and have the opportunity to be on the doorstep of a national title. It’s especially sweet, she said, to do so alongside Nwanebu.
“Ebony has been there with me. We were training room buddies,” White said. “We helped each other out and she's been like an older sister to me. So thank you, Eb.”
Last year’s national championship game against Nebraska was, not surprisingly, something Elliott was asked about. The coach said it was a “remarkable match,” but that the way his team plays this season is not at all the same.
“We have another opportunity with a completely different style of volleyball than we had a year ago,” he said. “I think we're more forceful. Maybe our ball control hasn't been as good, but in recent weeks it's really improved. I think our defense behind the block has gotten significantly better than our passing. And statistically our numbers are closer to where they were in 2012.”
What happened in 2012? The Longhorns brought home the title. Their quest to do it again resumes Thursday at 9:30 p.m.