Pack the buses for Minneapolis, the 2018 NCAA Division I women’s volleyball tournament is entering its final stage with four elite programs vying for the national championship.
The national semifinals begin Thursday with No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 4 BYU at 7 p.m. ET, followed by No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 7 Nebraska in the second semifinal at approximately 9 p.m. ET.
These four teams are loaded with talent that will captivate any audience, not just diehard volleyball fans. So before the first serve goes up from the Target Center, here are three things to know about each of the last four teams standing, starting with the top seed.
1. Stanford’s junior class might go down as one of the very best to ever play collegiate volleyball. As freshmen in 2016, Kathryn Plummer, Audriana Fitzmorris, Jenna Gray and Morgan Hentz arrived on the scene in a big way en route to a surprising national championship. They have only gotten better with Plummer going for her second straight national player of the year award. Gray is second in the nation with 12.41 assists per set and is an elite blocker and hitter for a setter. At 6-foot-6, Fitzmorris is great at the net on offense and defense. Then at libero, Hentz has been arguably the best libero in volleyball the past two seasons.
2. If you can get a ball past the Stanford block, consider yourself fortunate. The Cardinal statistically own the best block in the country at 3.39 per set. Senior middle blocker Tami Alade is the nation’s blocks leader per set at 1.8 while freshman middle Holly Campbell is among the top 40 with 1.29 per set and Fitzmorris is one of the leading blockers on the right side at 1.14 blocks per set. Stanford is the only team in the semifinals with three players in rotation that average more than one block per set and the only team with four players with more than 100 blocks — Gray has 101.
3. The Cardinal have been nearly perfect this year at 32-1, 20-0 in Pac-12 play. That one loss, though, came from its semifinal opponent. In that five-set match on Aug. 31 at BYU, the Cardinal had its most hitting errors all season (31), it’s least amount of digs per set (9) and its second lowest hitting percentage of the season (.203). Since then, Stanford has had 17 games with a hitting percentage above .300, 19 games with a higher blocks per set and only four games in which teams have hit better than BYU’s .234 that day. In the regional final, Penn State was the only team that has hit above .170 against Stanford in the tournament this year. It hit .204.
1. If you start anywhere with BYU, it has to be with Roni Jones-Perry — the player most likely to win national player of the year instead of Plummer. Jones-Perry is hitting an astonishing .343 this season, averaging 4.88 kills per set, which is ahead of Plummer’s 4.76. In the tournament so far, Jones-Perry has seemed to turn it up a notch. She might have had her best match of the year in the regional final against Texas, with 25 kills and a .367 hitting percentage in three sets. Against Stanford in the regular season, Jones-Perry had 20 kills on .341 hitting.
2. Watching BYU this tournament, you wouldn’t realize the Cougars have been without one of their most integral players. Outside hitter McKenna Miller, the team’s second-leading hitter at the time, suffered an ACL injury on Nov. 9. Missing her contributions might have been a major factor in the team’s only loss this season in the regular-season finale, but freshman Madelyn Robinson has filled in nicely, recording 10 kills against Florida and seven versus Texas.
3. BYU is another elite blocking and defensive team with another phenomenal setter and libero tandem. Setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich has 97 blocks this season and 11.27 assists per set. Then in the back row, there might not be a better libero vs. libero faceoff in the tournament than Stanford’s Hentz against BYU’s Mary Lake. Make any pun you want with her last name about covering a large area of the court, there’s little doubt she’s the backbone of this BYU team aiming for its first-ever national championship.
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1. Everything starts up front with All-American setter Jordyn Poulter. The rangy senior has to be respected as an attacker at 6-foot-2, which makes her so dangerous at the net. She also has All-American senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli and junior outside hitter Jacqueline Quade. The three have been phenomenal this tournament for a team that is rolling after hitting .318 in regionals. Quade is averaging 4.28 kills per set to lead the team.
2. In the regional final match against Wisconsin, the Illini allowed its season worst opponent hitting percentage of .338, yet came away with a four-set victory. Well, Poulter was terrific with 14.5 assists per set, but the Illinois block registered 11 blocks against the Badgers. When Illinois registers at least eight blocks this season, the Illini are 22-0. When recording seven or less blocks, they’re 10-3. In the second round, Illinois had a season-high 19 blocks in four sets. This is another team that makes opponents work for every point at the net.
3. Illinois is the only team remaining in the tournament that has an all-underclassmen back row defense. However, Poulter couldn’t have led this team to this stage without the play of freshman defensive specialist Taylor Kuper and sophomore libero Morgan O’Brien. By the time of the year, count these players as experienced. In the loss to Nebraska this season, the two combined for just 18 digs. In Illinois’ win against the Huskers, Kuper and O’Brien combined for 57 of the team’s 104 digs. Clearly, this could play a big factor in Thursday’s match.
1. The first thing to know about the Huskers might be the most obvious — they’re experienced. Yes, Nebraska has eight new players this season, but its senior leaders Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke know nothing but success with two national championships and four straight national semifinal appearances. A third championship would only cement this class even more as one of the best to ever play in such a historic program.
2. However, the reigning national champions do have a freshman at one of the most vital parts of the team — setter. Nicklin Hames has given head coach John Cook exactly what he needed in terms of on-court production this year. With Foecke and Texas transfer Lexi Sun on the outside, and Lauren Stivrins in the middle — who was integral to last year’s championship win against Florida — Hames has done exactly what has been asked of her. Her ability to make the smart sets has gotten Nebraska to this point once again.
3. Aside from the roster and the stats, it’s really simple what you should know about the Huskers: They’re red hot. Winners of eight straight heading into the tournament (12 since Nov. 2) and winners of 10 straight NCAA tournament games, this team knows how to win late in the season. They haven’t lost a set since Nov. 16 and haven’t lost a match since Oct. 27, which was to Illinois.