COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nebraska has been running into the Wisconsin wall for the past four years, and despite their best efforts and plenty of damage on Saturday night, the Huskers couldn’t quite break through.
The Badgers, who returned five seniors for an extra season of eligibility, got their storybook ending, outlasting Nebraska in five sets to win the first national title in program history
The first-ever five-time AVCA First-Team All-American and newly-minted AVCA National Player of the Year, Dana Rettke, tied her career-high with 13 blocks and delivered the final kill to quell Nebraska’s fifth-set comeback attempt, one of her 11 on the night.
“Epic weekend, just an epic weekend,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “I’m so happy for these guys and the other seniors. The stage isn’t big enough to bring all those guys back, but they came back for a goal and a dream and had some adversity along the way and were rewarded. It was a heck of a match, just an absolute grind. And that’s how it should be. Just an unbelievable performance by Nebraska. Unbelievable performance by our kids as well. It was just every player putting their entire heart and soul into a match. It was great.”
As a team, the fourth-seeded Badgers had 24 blocks in the 22-25, 31-29, 25-23, 23-25, 15-12 win in front of an NCAA Championship record crowd of 18,755 at Nationwide Arena. The No. 10 Huskers notched eight more kills, but Wisconsin out-hit Nebraska .183 to .141 to earn their eighth straight win in the series.
“I think the fans got their money’s worth,” Coach John Cook said. “It was a great match with two great teams and not a lot of separation in points, like it has been all year. It was a great match. I told our team that this might be the most proud I’ve been of a Nebraska team, how they handled the season, the setbacks, the losses to get to this match and play like that and even get way down in the fifth and fight our way back. Just a tremendous amount of heart, grit and resiliency, and these guys have done it every day. So I’m a very, very proud coach. And these guys are going to own Nebraska with this effort, win or lose tonight, it’s just the Husker nation is really, really proud right now.”
Madi Kubik led the Huskers with 19 kills and 14 digs, one of five Huskers with double-digit kills. Kayla Caffey was Nebraska’s only hitter above .250, energizing the Huskers early and finishing with a career-high 15 kills on .269 hitting plus four blocks.
“It was really cool to see,” Lauren Stivrins said about her fellow middle blocker’s performance. “It’s nice to have weapons like that, and with Wisconsin having so many, and us, it’s kind of like a toss up of who is going to be our weapon each game. So Kayla’s been one of our only consistent weapons throughout this entire season. So just to see her go out there and take big swings as if she’s hitting up against no block and just playing fearless volleyball, that instilled a lot of confidence in all of us around her.”
Nebraska out-dug Wisconsin 93 to 79. Keonilei Akana led the way with a career-high 24 digs. Nicklin Hames added 23 to go with her 56 assists. Lexi Rodriguez added 13 digs while Kenzie Knuckles chipped in 10 plus two of Nebraska’s four aces.
“Their strength, they’re a huge block, and we probably could have managed that a little bit better,” Cook said. “But that’s their strength, and our strength is digging the ball and keeping the ball alive. I felt like it was a heavyweight fight going back and forth, back and forth. They would make a big play, and then we’d make a big play. You saw two exceptional defensive teams, two exceptional serving teams. And those are the strengths of both of these teams.”
Anna Smrek, the 6-foot-9 freshman middle blocker who had 20 kills on .704 hitting in the semifinal win over No. 1 Louisville, led the Badgers again with 14 kills on .429 hitting to earn Most Outstanding Player honors.
Rettke and Wisconsin setter Sydney Hilley joined Smrek on the all-tournament team along with Hames, Kubik, Pitt’s Leketor Member-Meneh and Louisville’s Anna DeBeer.
The first set was a game of runs as the teams struggled for control. The Huskers raced out to a 5-1 lead thanks to a 4-0 serving run including an ace from Akana, but Wisconsin answered with a 5-0 run to take a 7-6 lead.
After ties at 7-7, 8-8 and 9-9, the Huskers pulled ahead for good. They used a 5-0 run including three straight Kubik kills to take a 16-10 lead. Wisconsin didn’t go down easy, using a 5-1 run to cut it to two at 19-17, then scoring three in a row after the Huskers had earned set point.
However, Cook called a timeout, then Hames went to Lauren Stivrins on a quick set for the smash to end it.
Nebraska hit .174 to Wisconsin’s .171 but had a 5-3 edge in service points thanks to four Badger errors. Kubik led the way with five kills but also had four errors. The middles combined for seven kills on 14 swings. The Huskers held Rettke to one kill on seven attacks.
The Huskers took a 5-1 lead to start set two as well thanks to a 5-0 run featuring two kills and a block assist from Caffey. Nebraska took its largest lead at 13-7 after a 3-0 run, but Wisconsin rallied with four straight points. The Badgers pulled within one four times, then surged ahead at 21-20 with three straight.
Nine ties and four lead changes followed as both sides has an answer for every push. Nebraska had four set points, and each time the Badgers found a way to survive. For the Badgers, the third time proved to be the charm as they closed it out with a personal 3-0 run from Rettke. The 6-foot-8 super senior tied it at 30-all with a kill then blocked Stivrins on back-to-back points to tie the match at 1-1.
“That was definitely an epic battle,” Rettke said. “Really good volleyball, so back and forth — kill, kill, block … That doesn’t happen unless every single person believes we can win that set. And we pulled it out with some clean volleyball.”
Wisconsin had eight blocks in the second set after five in the first. The Huskers had five more kills but hit just .143 thanks to 12 errors. Wisconsin hit .237 behind four kills on six swings by Jade Demps.
The fourth set was tight throughout. Nebraska used a 3-0 run early to pull ahead 8-5, then Wisconsin answered with its own 3-0 run. The Huskers scored back-to-back points, then the Badgers scored three in a row to take the lead at 11-10.
Thirteen straight sideouts followed before the Huskers snapped the streak with a 5-0 run featuring Rodriguez at the service line and a pair of big block assists from Stivrins that put the Huskers up 21-17.
The teams continued to side out, leading to a 24-20 Nebraska lead. Wisconsin scored three in a row to put the pressure firmly on the Huskers, and it looked like the Badgers were on their way to tying it up until Akana dove in front of the scorer’s table to cover a block touch. She kept the play alive and Kubik set Ally Batenhorst for a swing that clipped the back line to send the match to a fifth set.
“For Ally, as a freshman, to take that swing, I think that just shows you how much growth that they’ve had,” Hames said. “That was a big-time swing. It was an out-of-system set and it was off, but she went for it. That just talks to our mindset this whole tournament and how Kaylei dove for that dig. It wasn’t an easy dig and it really shows how hard our team really played tonight.”
Wisconsin out-hit Nebraska .225 to .194 but the Huskers had a 5-3 edge in service points.
The excitement from the fourth-set win didn’t last long, however, as the Badgers jumped out to a 7-0 lead to start the race-to-15 fifth set. After avoiding the Wisconsin block for 42 straight rallies, the Badgers stuffed the Huskers twice during the start while converting three kills of their own.
“We started in rotation one because I wanted to get our best servers going starting with Nicklin; it gives us our four best servers really in a row,” Cook said. “We thought that could be the difference, and we just got stuck in that rotation. Gotta give Wisconsin credit. They touched us, they blocked us. We were in system all the time and they just turned some plays. That was a big hole to get into to start the fifth game. But we inched our way back and almost got a deuce game.”
Batenhorst finally got Nebraska on the board with a kill and the Huskers continued to chip away at the lead. They cut it to four at 9-5, then three at 10-7. A Rettke kill and a Demps ace gave the Badgers five set points at 14-9.
Then Lindsay Krause got a kill. Then Kubik got one. Then Kubik scored another point, though it took a challenge from Cook to see a block touch by Wisconsin on the attack that landed well beyond the end line.
The Huskers had a couple chances to cut it to one thanks to terrific plays by the back row, but the attackers couldn’t capitalize and Rettke finally ended it.
Nebraska hit .000 in the set thanks to the nightmare start, though Wisconsin only hit .100.
The Huskers finished the 2021 season as the national runner-up and a 26-8 record.
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.