MINNEAPOLIS — Two historic programs. One national championship.
That’s what’s on tap Saturday when the No. 1 Stanford Cardinal (33-1) meet the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers (29-6) in the Target Center at 9 p.m. ET for the 2018 NCAA Division I women’s volleyball national championship.
The Cardinal have been the most dominant team all season and looked nearly invincible Thursday while avenging its only loss this season, sweeping No. 4 BYU. Nebraska, on the other hand, went through a three-game losing streak this season for the first time for this senior class, lost five of seven games at one point and were down two sets to none against Illinois on Thursday. Yet, the Huskers are vying for back-to-back titles and a third in four seasons, showing uncanny resilience on the trek back to a scene few teams ever reach.
Something will have to give for a team to head home with the championship trophy. These are a few areas within the game that could decide who will be the national champion:
Keys to the game:
How Nebraska handles Stanford’s block
The first thing that jumps out about Stanford is not just its skill, but also its size. With two players at 6-foot-6, and another at 6-foot-4, there’s a reason the Cardinal are the nation’s best blocking team. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the nation’s blocks per set leader, Tami Alade, who is 6-foot-2.
Stanford star outside hitter Kathryn Plummer said a big reason the block was so great in the semifinals was because the Cardinal served aggressively. By doing that, they forced BYU to pass off the net, creating more time for the block to set up.
Can Stanford replicate its 17 blocks against BYU in the national championship match? Doubtful. But the Huskers have to prepare for that block somehow, and outside hitters Mikaela Foecke and Lexi Sun are still going to have to put balls down when the block is right in front of them. Libero Kenzie Maloney said it’s something they have a lot of practice doing.
“I know in practice we work a lot on tooling the block, hitting high lines,” she said. “It's something we're really comfortable with.”
Maloney and freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller will have to be spectacular on serve receive to give the Huskers a chance at beating the block. Setter Nicklin Hames will have to execute transition offense as well.
Another way to counter that big block would be to keep the block guessing on where the ball is going. Lauren Stivrins is a first-team All-American for a reason. At 6-foot-4 with great leaping ability, Stivrins is a great slide attacker and can keep a defense honest in the middle when she’s playing well. She had eight kills and no errors on 16 swings in the semifinal and is hitting .471 this tournament.
There might not be another sport that the phrase “defense wins championships” applies to more than volleyball. The ability to take great servers off the line is so key this late in the season, especially with two teams that serve so well.
Both Nebraska and Stanford excelled scoring off the opponents’ first serve as the game wore on. In the final set of each match, Stanford’s sideout percentage was 72, Nebraska’s was 75.
“We talk about serve and pass before every single game,” Stanford libero Morgan Hentz said. “If we're not in system, we can't run our offense. When we communicate at a really high level, we're able to pass really well together. It's definitely going to be key in this next match.”
Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said he didn’t believe his team passed very well against in the semifinal against BYU. Against the trio of Foecke, Sun and Stivrins, the Cardinal defense must make plays in the back row.
Foecke vs. Plummer
There are two all-time greats for their programs playing in Saturday’s match in Foecke and back-to-back AVCA national player of the year Kathryn Plummer. Foecke, a senior, is playing in her final match in a career that hasn’t ended before the national semifinals. Plummer, a junior, has experienced the same success.
Against BYU, the block had so much success that it felt like Plummer’s 12 kills went unnoticed. Foecke’s contributions were noticed. She had two monster kills to go to a fourth set and was a perfect 4-for-4 in the fifth set. Against the nation’s best block, she will need to be terrific.
“We need to block and defend, which isn't going to be easy,” Hambly said about the Nebraska All-American. “She's going to get some points, she's going to score. Like Kathryn was mentioning, serve aggressively, hopefully get them off in that a little bit so we can set up our block, do the best we can.”
If Foecke can beat the block, Plummer’s effort will likely be noticed more. In the regional semifinal against Penn State, Plummer had 23 kills on 47 swings, hitting .389. Another performance like that could be enough for the Cardinal.
But neither team can be one dimensional.
“Tomorrow night we're going to need to have everybody hitting on all cylinders attacking-wise,” Nebraska coach John Cook said Friday. “We're going to have to be balanced. A couple of people have to have some big matches.”