The 2021 DI women's volleyball season was one for the books. And yes, I mean that in every way possible. After a shortened 2020 season, many seniors made the big decision to return for one last go-around at their respective schools. The amount of talent on these teams made for one unbelievable season ... that is a fact.
But even more so, it made for an incredible NCAA tournament and championship. Wisconsin took home the trophy for its first ever national title in program history, and one of the biggest groups of super seniors ended their collegiate careers with their fairytale ending. But aside from that, we saw SO many incredible moments this tournament. History was made, seasons were turned around, dreams came to fruition, and so much more.
Here are some of the best moments from the 2021 DI women's volleyball tournament ... ones that we will never forget:
History was made in the ACC
The ACC has been on the come-up for the past few years in the volleyball world, making noise left and right. But in the 2021 NCAA tournament, history was made. Six ACC teams earned a spot in the tournament, highlighted by No. 1 seed Louisville and No. 3 seed Pittsburgh. Both teams made it to the national semifinals for the first time in program history, and on top of that they became just the second and third ACC teams to ever make it to the top four. Despite both losing in the semifinal matchups, the ACC is on the map and Louisville and Pittsburgh should be volleyball powerhouses for years to come.
Nebraska pulled off one of the most incredible season turnarounds
If anyone could pull off this big of a season turnaround, its Nebraska. At the beginning of the regular season there were not many people that thought Nebraska would be playing for a national championship. And top of that, playing in a five-set thriller and giving Wisconsin all they could handle. With so many talented freshmen, John Cook found himself switching around the lineups game after game to try and find his answer. Freshmen and veterans were fighting for spots in the lineup and the Huskers fell out of the top 10 after notching three consecutive losses. But, they found their answer with three freshmen in the lineup, they peaked at the right time, and fast forward to the tournament and we saw one of the biggest displays of unity. This team took down Texas and Pittsburgh for two of the biggest upsets and battled tough for the national title. This turnaround is one we will never forget ... never count out Nebraska.
Comebacks galore — Purdue and Texas pulled off some of the biggest comebacks in the tournament
If there are any particular moments from the tournament that I will never forget, it's these. For some reason, the big-time comebacks are the ones that always stick with me the most. They are the moments that have me on the edge of my seat and the moments that remind you that anything is possible in sports.
Purdue pulled off a reverse sweep after dropping the first two sets to Dayton in the second round and then trailed 14-10 in the fifth set against BYU in the regional semifinals before fighting off four match points and winning it in five. Now that is an unforgettable moment.
Texas had another big comeback with a five-set win over Washington after falling behind 2-0 in the regional semifinals. They stormed back and absolutely dominated in the fourth set.
We saw two of the best libero/defensive performances in the national title game — Shoutout to Lauren Barnes and Lexi Rodriguez
I can't say enough about Lauren Barnes and Lexi Rodriguez. The defensive outings we saw by these two in the semifinals and title game were absolutely insane. You know the old saying in the book right ... Defense wins championships! Rodriguez and Barnes were launching their bodies all over the court to keep ball after ball alive, and made for some unforgettable moments and rallies in the tournament.
We saw an all-Big Ten championship game for the first time since 2013
Our national semifinals this season featured two ACC teams and two Big Ten teams, and Wisconsin and Nebraska advanced for our first Big Ten matchup in the title match since 2013 when Penn State and Wisconsin faced off. The beauty here is you get two teams that have played each other multiple times already, they have learned from their past matchups and get to make adjustments. It makes for a battle, as we saw this year.
Wisconsin set the record for most blocks in a championship game
The championship game was an absolute block party. The Badgers put up 24 blocks in the match, setting the record for most blocks in a title game. Dana Rettke had 13 of those blocks to her name, and it sure was fun to watch.
Heroes were born in the tournament
Aren't there always? Heroes are always born in the tournament, and when it comes to winning a national championship, each champion usually has an X factor. Wisconsin certainly did, and that was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Anna Smrek. A freshman, by the way. Smrek was not likely to even play much at all this season, but when star middle blocker Danielle Hart tore her ACL, Smrek got her shot. She started making her name known late in the regular season, but she absolutely burst onto the scene in the tournament. She led the Badgers past Louisville with a crazy 20-kill performance at an immaculate hitting percentage, upwards of .700, and then led all hitters in the title game with 14 kills on .429 hitting. Now that is hero, born in the tournament.
Wisconsin had another X-factor in the title game with Jade Demps coming up huge out of the backcourt for probably her best performance all season.
There were a few other heroes as well, born in the tournament ... Mariana Brambilla for Georgia Tech had a more than memorable tournament appearance, Leketor Member-Meneh got the recognition she deserves after transferring the Pitt and emerging as a super-star in the second half of the season, and then how about those freshmen ... Lindsay Krause, Ally Batenhorst and Lexi Rodriguez that led Nebraska to the title game. The heroes are always unforgettable.
The Dana Rettke prophecy came true this year
In August, 2021, I wrote a story on the top 7 storylines and unanswered questions for the 2021 season. At No. 2, I wrote "Will this be the year of Dana Rettke? Could she be the 2021 National Player of the Year?" Middle blockers few and far between win the NPOY award, but Rettke is one of the outliers. The prophecy came true.
Rettke became the first player in history to ever be a five-time first team All-American, and in the same season she so deservingly won the AVCA National Player of the Year. I could not be happier for Dana in achieving this. She radiates kindness, leadership and confidence ... she is as humble as ever, an incredible teammate, and now the best player in the nation. She came back for her fifth season and led her team to the title. Rettke is a dominant volleyball player, and we will miss seeing those fist bumps on the collegiate stage immensely.
The title game came down to five sets
We love a five-set thriller, and we love it even more in the title game. But, the title game we saw this year was even more than that. It was all could possibly ask for. The highest level of volleyball we have seen all season and a competitive battle for the history books. It was a battle of attrition, and just goes to show how incredible the sport of volleyball really is. The sport can only get bigger and bigger, and a game like that is as unforgettable as it gets.
Wisconsin won its first title in program history
Alas, the last unforgettable moment from this year's tournament — Wisconsin won its first ever title in program history. Three years in the making, and the third time was the charm. A memorable national title for a very deserving team and coach.