COLUMBUS, Ohio — On Saturday night, No. 4 Wisconsin outlasted No. 10 Nebraska in a five-set thriller to capture the 2021 national title, the Badgers’ first. They did it in front of a crowd of 18,755 at Nationwide Arena, the largest attendance in NCAA volleyball history.
A quick look at the all-time attendance list will show you the Huskers were involved in a lot of those matches. In fact, Nebraska has been a part of the top seven crowds in NCAA volleyball history, and 10 of the top 11.
The numbers shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise, though. The match featured the two teams atop the NCAA attendance chart in each of the past two seasons for which fans were able to attend (so, 2019 and 2021). The Huskers have led the nation in attendance in every season since 2012, and Wisconsin surpassed Hawaii in 2019. This year, the two schools combined to host 275,415 fans in 36 matches.
Coach John Cook, who coached at Wisconsin before joining the Huskers, mentioned Lincoln and Madison both being college towns, the support for girls sports at the high school level and the lack of professional teams to compete with as reasons for the incredible support for college volleyball in both cities, but he also pointed to a unique dynamic the two fan bases share.
“I think those towns have a lot of young families, and young girls can go and see these phenomenal role model female student-athletes,” Cook said. “And what mom wouldn’t want their kids to identify with volleyball players? But there’s still also the older generation that started when nobody was going, because I still see the same people I saw when I was coaching there. And, of course, I still see the same people, when I was an assistant at Nebraska, still coming to our matches. So you’ve got this great tradition of the older generation and now the younger generation in these college towns that are growing like crazy. I’d look at how much Wisconsin has built up their campus. Nebraska right now is just exploding with building projects everywhere. So they’re growing, happening places.”
Both fan bases represented themselves well on Saturday night, and it made for a terrific atmosphere — and a bit of history.
>> There’s no denying that Wisconsin was the better team, and that has been the case for the last four years. The Badgers have now won eight straight against Nebraska and they captured the last three Big Ten titles as well.
This is a special class of seniors coach Kelly Sheffield has had for the past five years, and as a fan of volleyball, it’s been incredible to watch them play. Dana Rettke, the 6-foot-8 middle blocker, is the first (and likely the only) five-time first-team All-American, and the AVCA named her National Player of the Year on Friday. The Huskers held her down for much of the match on Saturday, but she still finished with 11 kills and added a career-high-tying 13 blocks.
Libero Lauren Barnes didn’t make the All-Tournament team because liberos never get the respect they deserve in those discussions (see Lexi Rodriguez not making the Austin Regional all-tournament team last week), but she was arguably Wisconsin’s MVP on Saturday as she finished with 31 digs and robbed Nebraska of numerous kills throughout the night.
Sydney Hilley has been a masterful setter the last five years and was terrific again on Saturday with 53 assists, 13 digs, five blocks and two kills. Grace Loberg and Giorgia Civita both played important roles as well (and Civita did it this season while playing on a torn ACL).
The Badgers had five players decide to return for an extra season of eligibility, and four of them were starters. I’m sure Nebraska fans are glad they’ll never have to watch them play in Badger uniforms again.
Conversely, the Huskers had one super senior play on Saturday night in Lauren Stivrins. Yet this was the closest the Huskers have come to beating the Badgers during this entire streak. Nebraska had two juniors, one sophomore and three freshmen playing key roles.
Lauren Stivrins and Lexi Sun are definitely done. If none of this year’s seniors choose to return for an extra season, the Huskers are going to look very different next season. Stivrins and Nicklin Hames have arguably been the heart, soul and faces of this team over the past four years.
That being said, the strength of this team was its defense led by the “Legion of Boom” (the assistant coaches’ nickname for the three-defensive specialist back unit of Lexi Rodriguez, Kenzie Knuckles and Keonilei Akana; Madi Kubik said the players call them “the Midgets”), and they’re all set to return. Madi Kubik stepped into the top outside hitter role and handled it well once the Huskers got to conference play. The freshman pins learned a lot about what it takes to play in the Big Ten and go deep in the tournament, and I’d expect we’ll see better versions of all three, including Whitney Lauenstein, next season.
The future is certainly bright in Lincoln.
>> Speaking of Hames and Stivrins, perhaps the most emotional part of Nebraska’s post-loss press conference was when the realization hit Hames that Stivrins’ career in Lincoln was over.
Nicklin Hames gets emotional realizing that she'll never play with Lauren Stivrins again.
— Nicole Griffith (@NicoleGriff1011) December 19, 2021
I’m sure there are a lot of Nebraska fans that feel the same way Hames does.
Obviously the extra season of eligibility plays a big factor here, but Saturday’s was Stivrins’ 24th career NCAA Tournament match, setting a new Nebraska record and tying the NCAA record. She also broke the school record for tournament sets played with 86.
The 6-foot-4 senior ranks fourth in program history in career hitting percentage (.378; first in the rally scoring era), fifth in blocks (563; third-most during he rally scoring era) and 13th in kills (1,259). She owns the second-best (.468 in 2020) and fourth-best (.421 in 2018) single-season hitting percentages in program history (second and third during the rally scoring era).
Stivrins closes out her career with one national title (2017), two runner-up finishes (2018 and 2021) and two Elite Eight appearance (2019 and 2020-21). She made the Stivrins slide one of the most exciting plays in Nebraska athletics, and it’s going to be strange to see the Huskers play without her next fall.
In case you missed it, Stivrins penned a letter to Nebraska prior to Saturday’s match. You should listen to it.
"This has been an epic journey, one of which people can only dream of, and it's all thanks to you."
— NCAA Women's Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) December 18, 2021
>> This season, the Big Ten experimented with a new challenge system that granted coaches two challenge cards each match. If they won a challenge, they got to keep the card and could keep challenging until they got two wrong.
The rest of the NCAA, including the tournament, is still using the old system where coaches get three challenges no matter what (with a fourth coming if the match goes five sets).
In Saturday’s final, John Cook went 3-for-4 on his challenges. On one of them, the up official overruled the line judge that had signaled a touch. Cook had to burn a challenge to get the point for his team.
In the fifth set, it looks like there was a point early on during Wisconsin’s 7-0 run that the Huskers thought they had won. Cook one had one challenge left, however, and decided not to use it. That ended up looming large later on as Cook successfully challenged on the penultimate rally to extend the match and give the Huskers one more chance.
The NCAA needs to seriously consider adopting the Big Ten’s challenge system for the tournament. If one official is going to incorrectly overturn another’s call, the coaches deserve more opportunities to correct any mistakes that might happen.
Cook said on Wednesday that “heck yeah” he thought the NCAA should adopt the Big Ten’s version of the challenge.
“I’m in favor of the experimental, what we did in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “I thought it was great, because you’ve really got to think about a challenge and then of course, if you’re confident, you’ll get it back. There’ve been matches in the past I’ve gone through three challenges in the first two games, and then you’re done. So I like the idea of keeping a challenge if you win it. I don’t know, it feels more fair or something.”
For the record, Wisconsin’s Kelly Sheffield went 0-for-4 on his challenges.
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.