MINNEAPOLIS — The past two national champions and two of NCAA volleyball's best that have yet to win a national title have all arrived in Minneapolis at the Target Center for the semifinals of the 2018 NCAA volleyball tournament.
We’ve already highlighted three things to know about Stanford, BYU, Illinois and Nebraska, so let's dive in a little bit to the matchups to get you set for Thursday’s action.
If there was one potential match that enticed fans the most when the bracket was released, this semifinal matchup had to be the top choice.
Stanford (32-1) and BYU (31-1) have been the two most dominant teams all season, they have the two proverbial frontrunners for AVCA national player of the year award that will be given out Friday in Kathryn Plummer for the Cardinal and Roni Jones-Perry for the Cougars, and it’s a rematch of Stanford’s lone loss this season.
But a lot has changed since Aug. 31 and the dynamics of the matchup are completely different.
For starters, the Cougars will have to replace McKenna Miller’s 15 kills from that match to replicate the same result and advance to the program’s first championship match since 2014. Freshman Madelyn Robinson will have to continue to produce in place of Miller, who went down with an ACL injury in November.
Middle blocker Heather Gneiting, who was named AVCA national freshman of the year on Wednesday, had just nine kills in that five-set victory against Stanford. She will have to be special against the nation’s best blocking team.
“I think both teams are different in a way," BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. "Obviously, our lineup has changed. We've been better offensively being able to spread the ball out. I think we're playing some of our best volleyball right now and that's exciting heading into tomorrow's match.”
Stanford’s Tami Alade — the nation’s blocks per set leader — against Gneiting should be vital to the outcome, but it cannot be overstated how exciting it will be to watch Plummer and Jones-Perry go toe-to-toe for not just a spot in the national title match, but also likely national player of the year.
What makes both players so special is that they play physical and really attack the net, but can hit a variety of shots and are skilled from the back row. Plummer had her second-highest error total this season with 12 against BYU. Couple that with last season’s loss in the semifinals, she will be looking for a monster game.
“I think one of our big things is those first five points come (Thursday) just being ready from the get-go,” Alade said.
Key to the game: Outside of Plummer and Jones-Perry, first-team All-American setters Jenna Gray for Stanford and Lyndie Haddock-Eppich for BYU, along with each team’s All-American liberos could be the most crucial element in this game. Gray and Haddock-Eppich are not just great distributors, they also can dump the ball at any time and are skilled blockers. To have great plays at the net, however, it has to start with the pass from Stanford’s Morgan Hentz and BYU’s Mary Lake. Their passing accuracy from the back row will be of paramount importance in a game between two teams so evenly matched.
Stats to know: BYU has the highest team hitting percentage in the nation and second-best opponent hitting percentage. Stanford is third in team hitting percentage.
Theoretically, there shouldn’t be anything that these teams haven’t seen from the other. They’ve played each other twice — each winning one — and Illinois coach Chris Tamas coached as an assistant for Nebraska coach John Cook for two years.
This game will come down to execution.
Halfway through the year, it didn’t look like the reigning national champions would get to this stage. But something clicked after its loss at home to the Illini on Oct. 27, in which Nebraska (28-6) hit a season-low .099 and had a season-high 30 hitting errors. The Huskers defense has been impenetrable, holding seven of 12 opponents to under .200 hitting percentage and hitting above .300 in eight of those 12 matches.
Senior star outside hitter Mikaela Foecke has been spectacular of late. She hasn’t hit below .400 in a match this tournament and is averaging less than two errors per match since the loss to Illinois. Expect Lexi Sun to get near 10 attacks per set on Thursday as well.
“I think the losses in the middle of the season really changed a lot of things for us, put our season into perspective for us,” Foecke said.
Chris Tamas has never been to the national semifinals as a head coach, but he was a part of the 2015 national championship team and 2016 semifinal team at Nebraska as an assistant. This group for Illinois (32-3) hasn’t been to a national semifinal, but its core of All-Americans in Jordyn Poulter, Ali Bastianelli, and Jacqueline Quade are experienced enough for this stage.
It’s not just one thing that stands out above the rest for the Illini, it’s the fact that they do everything well. Poulter is a good blocker for a setter, Bastianelli is reliable as a blocker and a hitter, then Quade can put a ball away when she needs to.
All in all, these teams are incredibly even — see their regular season matches for proof. If you’re looking for a couple X-factors, they have to be middle blocker Lauren Stivrins for Nebraska and opposite hitter Megan Cooney for Illinois. These are two players that can really affect the game on both sides, but won’t be the primary attackers. They’ll still get their fair share of attacks.
“I think we have to bring our best against Nebraska,” Bastianelli said. “I mean, they're a very good team, playing very good volleyball right now. So are we. It should be a battle.”
Key to the game: As stated above, passing is so crucial at this stage of the game. Nebraska and Illinois are two of the best serving teams in the country, both within the top 20 for aces per set. Whichever team can control the service line more could swing the game in its direction.
Stats to know: Nebraska is the nation’s leader in opponent hitting percentage at .136. Illinois has only hit less than .200 three times this season and hit 11 times greater than .350.