COLUMBUS, Ohio — When the Huskers arrived at Nationwide Arena on Thursday evening for the national semifinals, they were wearing back sweatshirts with the message “The JOURNEY makes the STORY better.”
With Thursday’s win over No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 10 Nebraska extended that journey a bit longer. They’ll play for a national championship on Saturday night.
“It encompasses all our tournament run,” Hames said about the sweatshirts. “Like I said yesterday, a lot of people didn’t believe in us, and we’ve been through this journey this entire season up and down and it wasn’t always perfect. But here we are and we’re excited. And those are our favorite sweatshirts we’ve ever gotten. They’re really cool. We were excited to get those yesterday.”
To get to this point, the Huskers had to take down No. 3 Pitt, No. 2 Texas and an Illinois team that upset No. 7 Kentucky in the second round, and they had to do that after suffering seven losses in the regular season, more than the other three teams that made it to Columbus combined.
“I think the way our team competes defensively is second to none,” Lauren Stivrins said. “I think that it’s effort, energy and grit, and those are some of our consistent qualities that we have, especially in this tournament so far. I think that this team is on a mission. We have such a deep belief in each other and ourselves that we can do this and we’re capable of winning no matter who we’re up against. I think if we carry all those things into tomorrow, it will be a great match. And hopefully we’ll come out on top.”
Awaiting Nebraska on Saturday night will be a familiar foe: No. 4 Wisconsin. During his post-match address to the team, Cook told them they’ll get another shot at their “buddies” in an all-Big Ten final.
“There’s a tremendous amount of respect between the programs, and so when I say ‘our buddies,’ in 2019 we played them three times,” Cook said. “Last year it got canceled because of COVID. And this year we’re playing them three times. So we’ve played them a lot, and a lot of those matches have been for Big Ten championships or going to a Final Four, competing for a national championship. So we’ve just played them a lot. They know each other really well. But right now Wisconsin set the bar in the Big Ten. They’ve won the championship the last three years and everybody’s chasing them. It will be an honor to play them, and we feel like, ‘OK, we’ve gotten to a point now where we’ve got a chance to win this.’”
Wisconsin swept Nebraska in Lincoln back in October, and the Badgers beat the Huskers in four in Madison last month. That second match was Nebraska’s last loss, and Kenzie Knuckles said it was a bit of a turning point for the team. The Huskers routed the Badgers in the first set, 25-14, but weren’t able to win close games later on.
“I think we went into the Wisconsin match really confident in what we’ve been working on, and I think that showed the first set when we played them,” Knuckles said. “I think we struggled a lot with finishing this entire season. It really sucked for us when we played Wisconsin, and that’s how it went and that’s how it ended. So I think that was a turning point for us. We kind of realized we needed to get our stuff together in order to get far in the tournament.”
On Thursday night (or more accurately, Friday morning since the press conference started after 1 a.m. ET), Stivrins said this team is “completely different” than the one that played the Badgers last month, and “light years different” than the one from the first meeting.
“We’re flowing as a unit a lot better,” Hames said on Friday. “We just have this belief in each other that I don’t think was there the entire season. And you can tell on the court just how much we enjoy playing with each other, how much we have each other’s backs. I feel like a lot of times we kind of gave up in those tight moments, and now we really lean on each other and we have overcome a lot of tight games. I think that’s what’s been the most special part about this whole run.”
While the Huskers have improved since their previous meeting, so too have the Badgers. They’ve gone through their own lineup experimentation and injury issues.
“Our season has been a work in progress,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “Our rotation, our lineup has been that. Nebraska has been the exact same way. They haven’t been in a hurry to figure it out. Neither have we. [Nebraska] is the best defensive team in the country, and it’s really tough to score. It puts a premium on us being patient. You’ve got to be really patient when you’re playing them. Their younger kids, they’re playing their best volleyball right now. It’s been impressive to watch how they’ve put this together, and you’re not surprised because it’s an excellent coaching staff. They’ve been through this rodeo once or twice before.”
Nebraska will likely get a chance to show just how far it has come this season in late game situations as four of the seven sets against the Badgers during the regular season were deuce-game losses for the Huskers.
“We’ve got to make plays and max it out when it matters most,” Cook said. “That’s what we’re learning how to do. We’ve won some deuce games since that match. And, yes, Wisconsin has gotten better, too. You’re not in this, down to two teams today, unless you’ve gotten better. It’s a matter who can go out perform with everything on the line. And that’s what it’s going to come down to, just like in most big sporting events.”
Both teams feature players who made history this week. For the Badgers, middle blocker Dana Rettke become the first-ever five-time first-team All-American, and she followed that up by winning AVCA National Player of the Year on Friday. Meanwhile, Nebraska freshman Lexi Rodriguez became the first libero to win AVCA National Freshman of the Year on Friday after earning first-team All-America honors from the AVCA on Wednesday.
Wisconsin is hitting .296 while holding opponents to .162 this season. Rettke leads the way with 3.46 kills per set on .436 hitting and 1.38 blocks per set. Freshman Julia Orzol is averaging 2.92 kills per set on .209 hitting while senior Grace Loberg is contributing 2.71 kills per set on 227 hitting.
In Thursday’s semifinal win over No. 1 Louisville, 6-foot-9 freshman Anna Smrek took advantage of the attention paid to slowing down Rettke, Orzol and Loberg (combined .187 hitting) to go off for a career-high 20 kills on .704 hitting. Her only other double-digit-kill performance was in Lincoln back in October as she had 12 kills on .647 hitting.
“She’s a phenomenal player,” Rettke said about Smrek. “She has some really awesome gifts and works really, really hard. So we were just super proud of her. I don’t think they thought of her as a priority attacker. She just owned it and it was really awesome to see and you saw her confidence just continue to go up as the match went on. I’ve been seeing that from her throughout the whole entire tournament … I was so, so proud of her, and just she really rose up in the big moments yesterday. She’s definitely a force to be reckoned with, absolutely.”
The Badgers also have super senior All-Americans at setter (Sydney Hilley) and libero (Lauren Barnes), while sophomore opposite/middle blocker Devyn Robinson had a big match against the Cardinals with nine kills on .389 hitting.
A freshman stepped up for Nebraska in the semifinal round as well as opposite Lindsay Krause put up nine kills on .368 hitting. She’s hit .350 or better in four of her five tournament matches this far. Senior Lauren Stivrins played a huge role for the Huskers against Pitt as well with nine kills on .539 hiring and six blocks (one solo). Overall, Nebraska is hitting .222 and holding opponents to .147 this season.
First serve from Nationwide Arena on Saturday is set for 6:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2 with Paul Sunderland, Salima Rockwell and Christine Williamson on the call.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.