COLUMBUS, Ohio — This is Nebraska’s fifth trip to the Final Four in the seven years I’ve been covering the program. In the first three, the Huskers were a top-five national seed and in the fourth, they were No. 7. Heck, in the other two seasons where the Huskers fell in the regional final round, Nebraska was the No. 5 seed.
This year’s team is the 10th seed, making Nebraska the first double-digit seed to advance to the final since 2014. Only one team has ever won the title as a double-digit seed, No. 11 Stanford in 2004. The Huskers have freshmen playing key roles and have been up-and-down all season.
Yet here the Huskers are, preparing to play on the final day of the season once again.
“It feels great,” Nicklin Hames said. “We talked all week that no one expected us or believed that we could be at this point right now, that we would be playing for a national championship. But I feel like we’ve really hit our stride at the right time and we just have this belief and we’re out there playing, as we say, with one heart, which I think is really special, snd you can tell how much fun we are having. And in those moments, too, we’ve had a tough season. It’s been up and down. And I think it’s prepared us for those big moments, and we’re playing great in those big moments.
“It’s not always pretty, but it’s our way and we get it done and we have each other’s backs. I just love playing with this team so much. I think that’s the most special part about it.”
>> This season is unlike any we’ve seen before because of the eligibility freeze brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. That opened the door for last year’s seniors to return for one more season, and many took advantage all across the country.
Each of the four teams that made it to Columbus featured these “super seniors” in key roles.
No. 4 Wisconsin has five of them including four starters. Middle blocker Dana Rettke made history on Wednesday when she became the first ever five-time first-team All-American. That group accounted for 27 kills, 39 digs, 66 assists, 13 blocks and two aces in the Badgers five-set semifinal win.
No. 1 Louisville only has two super seniors, but they are the team’s best players in setter Tori Dilfer and middle blocker Anna Stevenson. Dilfer had 49 assists, 10 digs, three kills while Stevenson finished with 12 kills on .360 hitting, eight blocks and an ace against the Badgers.
The Panthers had four super seniors including one who transferred in. Three of the four started for the Panthers on Thursday and combined for 30 kills, 23 digs, five assists and five blocks.
Nebraska arguably benefited the least of the Final Four teams as only two players returned for an extra season, and one of them is out of the rotation. I wrote about Lexi Sun on Wednesday, but after a quiet performance in the regional final, Lauren Stivrins played a big role in Nebraska’s semifinal win over Pitt. She finished with nine kills on 17 errorless swings (.529 hitting), six blocks and an ace.
>> Nebraska struggled offensively in the first set, hitting .167 with just nine kills. As the match wen on, however, the Huskers seemed to figure Pitt out a bit and have more success, especially when they looked to tool the block.
“I think we were emphasizing it from the beginning of the match,” Madi Kubik said. “As we talked about it a little bit, we kind of settled in a little more and talked about breaking fingers. So that was the goal. Not actually breaking them, but kind of. But yeah, we were just trusting Nicklin to put up great balls and using our vision to find the hands and get swings and kills.”
>> On Friday, the AVCA named former Husker and current Louisville head coach Dani Busboom Kelly the U.S. Marine Corp/AVCA Division I National Coach of the Year after leading the Cardinals to a perfect 32-0 record heading into the national semifinals.
On Friday night, her season was over as the fourth-seeded Badgers of Wisconsin handed the top-seeded Cardinals their first loss of the season in a five-set thriller.
Though the Cardinals fell short of their ultimate goal, they still put together the best season in program history. In year five for Busboom Kelly, Louisville rose to No. 1 in the AVCA poll for the first time, reached the Final Four for the first time and became the first team in ACC history to navigate the regular season without a loss.
After Thursday’s match, she reflected on what this season means to her and what she learned.
“I always hoped to coach a team that really understood what it took to be in this position and the hard work. But more importantly, it’s just been really amazing to see this team not only work hard but do it the right way and have fun and inspire a community and the university to love this program.
“I guess this team has taught me to stay true to myself and that we don’t have to have — the role acceptance, like I was talking with my assistants a couple of days ago, we are all very comfortable in our roles and that’s really special. That blends into the team and I think that’s something that’s really tough and why we’ve been so successful.
“Yeah, this team has taught me that you really can have it all. You can be great and you can win a lot. You can have fun. You can love each other and you can build a program. And that’s been pretty incredible to do that all in one year.”
On Wednesday before the semifinals, Cook offered his thoughts on the job that his protege had done this season.
“I’ll always root for her except for when we’re playing them,” Cook said. “But I’m very proud of Dani. I’m not surprised, what she’s done. She’s done an amazing job. She’s done it really quickly … To go undefeated to this point is really, really hard. You could say ‘Well, they played in the ACC.’ Well, we know how tough the ACC is this year, which makes it even more, and then she came in and they kicked our butts in Devaney. So she’s done a great job. She’s a small-town Nebraska kid. I made her switch positions her senior year. She set for a national championship and the next year I made her a libero; she weathered that storm.
“I tell all of our players that want to coach you’ve got to go away somewhere else and see what the rest of the world is like, because not every place is like Nebraska. So she went away and coached I think at Tennessee and Louisville. I hired her back, we won a national championship in ’15. And then she got hired at Louisville. I remember Tom Jurich, the AD, called me and said, ‘Hey, we want to hire Dani.’ I said, ‘Great, she’s she’s ready to go.’ That was it, it was a done deal. In like five minutes she was hired and she’s done an amazing job. She’s a heck of a recruiter, she’s a great judge of talent, and again, she’s played libero, she’s played setter and she’s been in some really good programs.”
With Busboom Kelly at the helm, Louisville has become a really good program in its own right.
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.