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Adam Hermann | NCAA.com | December 12, 2017

Can Stanford repeat as national champions?

  The Cardinal can smell repeat in Kevin Hambly's first year. Can anyone stop them?

In the past quarter-century, eight schools have won national championships. Of those eight, three programs have won at least four titles since 1992. 

All three are still standing in this year’s national semifinals. 

Penn State (seven titles in that span) and Stanford (seven titles) stand on opposite sides of the bracket and both teams bring a blue-blood volleyball pedigree to the Sprint Center. Nebraska has won four titles since 1992. The Huskers will extend their Big Ten rivalry with Penn State during Game 1 of the semfinals.

RELATED: Full interactive bracket

And then there’s the challenger in Florida, a program without a national semifinal appearance in the past decade but a head coach with more than enough experience and intel to make this trip a fruitful one.

Match day is fast approaching, so let’s break things down.

Florida vs. Stanford

Tale of the Tape

Head Coach: Mary Wise
Record: 29-1
Win Streak: 15 matches
Star Player: Shainah Joseph

Head Coach: Kevin Hambly
Record: 30-3
Win Streak: 9 matches
Star Player: Kathryn Plummer

Is this, at long last, Mary Wise’s year? 

In her 27th year at the head of the Gators’ program, Wise has racked up one of the great winning percentages in NCAA history, regardless of sport and division. This is her eighth national semifinal appearance, and this year marked the Gators’ 23rd regular season SEC championship under her tutelage.

But this is Florida’s first appearance in the final weekend of the season since 2003, because nothing is guaranteed. Which means Wise is probably hoping she can make this trip count. 

One person who could help that dream come true is redshirt senior Shainah Joseph, who took over for the Gators in their dramatic quarterfinal matchup with USC. Joseph’s had a tremendous final season in Gainesville, hitting .366 with 273 kills, and with another strong pair of matches, she might be enough to put Florida over the top for the program’s first national championship.

Standing in the way of Joseph and Wise, of course, is the defending champion machine from Stanford, featuring Joseph’s staunch opponent this weekend: sophomore Kathryn Plummer, the best player in the country. 

Plummer is the odds-on favorite to be named 2017’s National Player of the Year. She has 11 matches this year with at least 20 kills, is hitting .323 on the season, and recorded 81 blocks along the way. At 6-foot-6, the combination of her height and her complete skill set makes Plummer the clear leader of this Stanford squad.

Stanford volleyball: Kevin Hambly bringing a unique approach to Palo Alto

But the players filling in the rest of the spots on the court around Plummer are no scrubs. Jenna Gray (39 assists in the Cardinal’s quarterfinal victory over Texas) and Merete Lutz make up a one-two punch, while sophomore Audrianna Fitzmorris (hitting .386) had an exceptionally efficient season. 

It’ll be a battle of two strong offenses, and while Stanford probably holds the edge on paper, don’t count out Joseph and the Gators. 

Prediction: Stanford, 3-1

Nebraska vs. Penn State

Tale of the Tape

Head Coach: John Cook
Record: 30-4
Win Streak: 17 matches
Star Player: Kelly Hunter

Penn State
Head Coach: Russ Rose
Record: 33-1
Win Streak: 23 matches
Star Player: Simone Lee

The second matchup is a powerhouse showdown for the ages. These two teams have 63 wins between them, and met just once this season, when Nebraska handed the Nittany Lions their only loss of the year, a shocking 3-0 sweep of the best team in the country. It was the first time in 14 years Penn State was swept in Rec Hall.

It’s even more startling in retrospect, when you consider Penn State’s record heading into the national semifinal:

  • Only one loss this year, and none since September 22
  • 20 of their 33 match victories this year have been 3-0 sweeps
  • They’ve only dropped 19 sets, total, in 34 matches this year

Let’s begin with Nebraska. How did the Huskers do that to Penn State back in September?

HIGHLIGHTS: Huskers upend Kentucky in national quarterfinals

It starts with an intriguing mixture of experience, and just a little young talent. The Huskers have six holdovers from their 2015 national championship squad, and a few of them — outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, setter Kelly Hunter, mid blocker Brianna Holman, to name a few — are crucial contributors on this year’s team. 

Hunter’s absence from August’s VERT Challenge, when Nebraska suffered two of its four losses this season, makes one think the Huskers might even be stronger than we know. Their other two losses, to Northern Iowa and Wisconsin, came to two sturdy teams capable of tackling the country’s elite. And the win over this Penn State team is all the confidence John Cook’s squad needs.

Then, of course, there’s the case of Russ Rose’s outfit. The Nittany Lions have lost once this season. We’ve detailed their dominance here on NCAA.com plenty of times, and they’ve been the undoubted No. 1 team in the country for weeks. 

They’re led by All-American outside hitter Simone Lee, who averaged nearly four kills per set this season. Haleigh Washington’s been a truly efficient weapon alongside Lee, hitting a marvelous .512 and also averaging more than three kills per set. And Ali Frantti, despite her less-than-stellar outing against Michigan State in the quarterfinals, is a great complimentary piece. 

Working with Abby Detering and Bryanna Weirkircher (1,411 assists combined), the Nittany Lions’ attack has been a picture of productivity this season.

HIGHLIGHTS: Penn State sweeps Sparty en route to semis

There’s also the case of “been there, done that” when it comes to the man in charge. Rose is one of the best volleyball coaches the NCAA has ever seen, and in his 39th year at the helm is charging towards national title No. 8. 

If there’s one person you want coaching your team up as they prepare to face their only conquerors of the year, it’s Rose.

Prediction: Penn State, 3-2

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