In 2016, Nebraska arrived in Columbus, Ohio, in December looking to repeat as national champions. The Huskers had defended home turf in 2015, winning the title in Omaha. They went 28-2 in the regular season then swept three of their first four opponents to punch their ticket back to the Final Four.
Their stay in Columbus was short. Fourth-seeded Texas bumped the top-seeded Huskers out of the tournament in straight sets and sent them home after Thursday’s semifinals. Nebraska is hoping to make this year’s trip last a little longer as the Huskers will face No. 3 Pittsburgh on Thursday night at Nationwide Arena.
“This is a little déjà vu,” Coach John Cook said on Wednesday. “We were here in ’16, so Lauren [Stivrins] and I have been here before, and Lindsay Peterson. Excited to be here and so far, Columbus has done an amazing job. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen … when we got to the hotel, they played a video of all the girls’ parents and families giving pump-up, encouragement messages on this video. It was very creative and cool and got this trip day off to a great start. So thank you for that and all the hospitality that we’ve seen so far. … We’re excited to be here and Pitt’s a really good team and we’re going to have a great challenge in front of us.”
Nebraska was the only team to pull an upset in the regional Finals. The Huskers have more losses (seven) than the other three teams in Columbus combined (six). As Cook tried to incorporate freshmen into the lineup and find a rotation that clicked, the Cornhuskers lost three straight matches to close out their nonconference schedule, and then they lost three times in a four-match stretch during Big Ten play. They lost to Wisconsin with the Big Ten title on the line. Yet here they are, one of the last four teams standing.
“The biggest surprise is I don’t think I did a very good job coaching in the nonconference and managing how we were going to come up with a lineup and waiting for Lauren to come back and what probably surprised me is how well they handled that and stuck with it and then believed in what we were doing,” Cook said. “We start off the Big Ten 10-0, and this is by far the toughest Big Ten conference. But I’ve seen this team grow and get better every week that we’ve gone on. We expect that at Nebraska, but this team has really, really embraced it.
“They come into practice … and train like it’s 13-13 in the fifth every day and they’ve done it the entire year. So not that that’s a surprise, but it’s more of a compliment that they’ve really stuck with it and they’ve all found their roles and embraced it and stuck with it. So it’s not a surprise, but they could have gone the other way is I guess what I’m trying to say.”
If the Huskers manage to knock of the third-seeded Panthers (30-3), the winner of No. 1 Louisville (32-0) and No. 4 Wisconsin (29-3) will be waiting for them, and both those teams beat Nebraska in Lincoln this season. The Huskers head into this weekend as the underdog, which isn’t often the case when Nebraska advances to the Final Four.
“I think this team has had a really deep belief from the beginning of season regardless of wins and losses in the conference,” junior Madi Kubik said. “I think it goes to show with us being seeded 10th and being the lowest seeded team since 2014 in the Final, the belief that we have in each other. So I think we’re just going to carry that joy and belief through these next matches.”
That confidence showed itself in the regional final round as the Huskers took down No. 2 Texas in four sets less than eight months after the Longhorns bounced the Huskers from the 2020–21 regionals in three sets in Omaha. Stivrins called that win a “huge confidence-booster,” as their belief level finally matched the talent that they see in practice every day.
“I think in any of the previous games that we’ve struggled in it’s been because we didn’t believe in our own selves, and it’s not that we’re any less talented than anyone we play,” Stivrins said. “It just comes from within. It’s hard to put it into words. It was just a feeling like we knew we were the better team. We might have been outmatched talent-wise maybe just a little bit — they’ve got some big, physical hitters and experienced hitters at that — but we definitely play with a lot more heart and we love what we do. We just knew going into that that we were going to win. We didn’t know how, but we were going to find a way and we were going to do it together. I think that belief carried us through and I think that will carry us through moving forward.”
The Panthers finished second in the ACC and lost just three times during the regular season — twice to Dani Busboom Kelly’s undefeated Cardinals and once to a Georgia Tech team that made it to the regional final round.
“They have six hitters that can kill the ball, and of course they run a 6-2,” Cook said. “They’re very well coached, they serve well, they pass well, and they’ve been in some wars. It’s the Final Four, you’re going to play great teams here, so it’ll be a really great challenge for us. But very impressed with Pitt. That team has been building, they’ve got a lot older players, so they’ve been building this for a while. They were right on the verge of making the Final Four in the spring.”
Pitt has three players averaging better than 3.0 kills per set, led by senior Missouri transfer Leketor Member-Meneh, a 5-foot-8 outside hitter. She’s averaging 3.22 kills on .284 hitting and 0.29 aces per set. Super senior opposite hitter Chinaza Ndee is contributing 3.05 kills per set on .285 hitting while fellow fifth-year outside hitter Kayla Lund isn’t far behind at 3.04 kills per set on .244 hitting and 0.29 aces per set. Senior Penn State middle blocker transfer Serena Gray has started every match and is contributing 2.12 kills per set on .415 hitting, 1.08 blocks per set and 0.35 aces per set.
Platteview graduate Sabrina Starks is a reserve middle blocker for the Panthers and is averaging a team-best 1.10 blocks per set to go with 0.82 kills per set, though she hasn’t played since Pitt’s first-round win over UMBC.
Down the stretch of the season, freshman Rachel Fairbanks and junior Lexis Akeo (a high school teammate of Keonilei Akana) have split the setting duties for the Panthers while junior libero Ashley Browske leads the team with 3.03 digs per set.
“We know that they’re going to run a fast offense,” Stivrins said. “We know that they run a 6-2 and they’ve got great hitters everywhere. But when it comes down to the game time, we just need to focus on ourselves and play Husker volleyball because that’s ultimately what’s going to take us to the next game.”
Louisville and Wisconsin will get things started at Nationwide Arena Thursday night at 6 p.m. CT. The Huskers and Panthers will follow at 8:30 p.m. (or later, depending on the first match). Paul Sunderland, Salima Rockwell and Christine Williamson will call the match on ESPN.
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.