LINCOLN, Neb. — Beating a quality opponent three times in one season is not an easy task, and it’s even more difficult when the team has to win three straight sets to do it after falling behind 0-2. That is the situation the top-seeded Huskers found themselves in against No. 16 seed Penn State on Friday morning.
In fact, the Huskers were within a single point of elimination. Leading the match 2-0, the Nittany Lions earned two match points at 24-22 in the third and it looked like the Huskers’ quest for a second straight national title had reached its end. However, senior middle blocker Amber Rolfzen was not ready for her career to end.
After a fierce rally, Rolfzen spiked home a kill to pull within one, then teamed up with junior setter Kelly Hunter to stuff Penn State’s All-Big Ten outside hitter Simone Lee to tie the match at 24-all.
“I think it is just one of those things that if you lose the point, you’re done,” Rolfzen said. “You go all out; whether you win the point or not, at the end of the day you know that you gave your best effort. I know when it was 23-24 Simone [Lee] was their big go-to. I just knew that they were going to set her so I just made a big explosive move and took away her go-to shot.”
From there, sophomore outside hitter Mikaela Foecke took over and closed out the set with consecutive kills.
“I think that’s where we came back to our phrase of the year: point by point,” Rolfzen said. “If we didn’t win to get to 23, we couldn’t have gotten to 24. I think just trying to play point by point, we say we want to sell out and do everything we can to win one point and then we worry about the next one. That was our mentality there at the end and obviously we sold out – we had two amazing plays just to tie it up and then ended up with the win.”
The Huskers got over the hump in the third set and rolled through the rest of the match for the most part as Nebraska won 22-25, 22-25, 26-24, 25-19, 15-6.
“It’s hard to beat Penn State three times in a row, and Penn State played really well today,” Nebraska Coach John Cook said. “… You got to see what it’s like every night in the Big Ten. Great match, Penn State played great, played with a lot of heart and fight. Our team just willed it out in game five, so great job by the Huskers.”
Nebraska led 22-20 and 22-19 in the first two sets, but Penn State rallied to win both and take a 2-0 lead into the intermission. Penn State outside hitter Ali Frantti had 16 kills through the first two sets.
Penn State also threw up a wall at the net, recording 15 blocks through the first three sets.
“I think that they were blocking lights out,” junior middle blocker Briana Holman said. “I think that’s probably something that they really focused on. I think Kelly did a great job today of putting the ball up so we were just trying to chip away, chip around them.”
On offense, Frantti, (21), Lee (22) and middle blocker Haleigh Washington (10) accounted for 53 of Penn State’s 63 kills.
“Penn State became very predictable as the match went on,” Cook said. “You knew they were going to set Frantti and Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington. We knew where they were and we executed. But I think the big thing in game five is we started with Anni serving and we got a nice little run there, and I think we just fed off of that. They had a hard time passing in game five; we really stressed them with our serve.”
Cook said the Huskers loosened up as the match went on after playing tight early, and the Huskers serving made a difference in the last few sets. Nebraska finished with nine aces — including three each by Annika Albrecht and Foecke — to five errors and the Huskers targeted Frantti in serve receive, which produced four errors by Frantti and slowed her down on offense too.
“Frantti had a lot of attempts today and she started breaking down,” Cook said. “When you’ve got to do as much as she has to do, and this match goes for two-and-a-half hours or whatever it was, that’s a big load to carry. That was our game plan the first time we played them, our game plan the second time we played them and tonight was to go after her and try to wear her out.”
Frantti finished with five kills over the final three sets.
For the Huskers, five players finished with nine or more kills led by Holman’s 17 kills on .583 hitting. Friday was Holman’s first Sweet 16 game after transferring to Nebraska from LSU and she said she was blown away by the atmosphere at the Devaney Center.
“I can say that I’ve never played in a place like the Devaney, even from the very first time I played in the Red-White scrimmage last year I was in awe because I’d never played in this type of atmosphere.,” Holman said. “This is the furthest I’ve ever been in the tournament so I’m just kind of taking it point by point and trying to be the best teammate that I can be. But I’m super excited to see where we go from here.”
Amber Rolfzen finished with 15 kills, Kadie Rolfzen had 14 kills and 18 digs, Andie Malloy added 13 kills and Foecke had nine.
“It was definitely a roller coaster of emotions, Hunter said. “The first two games a little stressful. Obviously any time you’re down 0-2, it’s going to be a little stressful. But I think at the end, those last three games we forgot the first two and we came out and our energy, it was awesome. Just the way we would celebrate was so fun, and I think when we do that, the bigger plays keep coming for us; not like we’re cheering because of the big plays, we’re making them happen. Fun is a good word for it.”
The attendance for the match, which began at 11 a.m., was 8,240, and Penn State coach Russ Rose said the crowd made a significant difference in the match.
“I knew [the fans] would be here, and that might have been the loudest I’d ever heard Devaney. My ears are ringing right now,” Cook said during his post-game press conference. “That used to happen a lot in the Coliseum. It hasn’t happened that often here, but it was loud and they were into it. This is a special place and our fans make it great.”
Friday was Nebraska’s second five-set win against Penn State this season as the Huskers won at University Park on Nov. 4. Nebraska swept Penn State in Lincoln on Nov. 16. Regardless of previous results, Cook said he wasn’t surprised by how round three played out.
“It’s Penn State,” Cook said. “This is usually how we have matches with Penn State. I was expecting this tonight. Our team hasn’t been in that situation very often this year, really once at Minnesota, so this is a great match for us to learn and build on, knowing what we can do and how deep we’re going to have to dig.”
The win sends Nebraska to the Elite Eight to face off against Washington, who swept Arizona on Friday afternoon. First serve at the Devaney Center is set for 3 p.m. on Saturday.
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.