Photo Credit: John Peterson

Padding the Stats: Nebraska’s Path to a National Championship

April 07, 2021

We’re one week out from the start of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament — and one week and a day from the start of Nebraska’s journey to a sixth national title.

What would winning this year’s championship entail for the Huskers? Let’s take a closer look at Nebraska’s draw.

First, Nebraska’s going to have to sit and watch the first round as the top 16 seeds received a bye in this reduced field. Utah Valley (14-5) and Texas State (30-8) will battle it out for the right to play the Huskers.

Yes, you read that record right for Texas State. The Bobcats played during both he fall and spring and somehow managed to squeeze in a nation-leading 38 matches during he 2020-21 season (on the other end of the spectrum, Army won the Colonial auto-bid with a 6-2 record). I’m going to give the Bobcats the nod here based on their 3-1 win over Baylor to close out the spring season.

Outside hitter Janell Fitzgerald is a force for Texas State, averaging 3.47 kills per set on .311 hitting. The Bobcats have out-hit their opponents .235 to .171 this season. In addition to the challenges Texas State presents, the Huskers will have to work off the rust from a nearly three week stretch between matches.

If the Huskers take care of business and advance to the regionals, they’ll likely have those same Baylor Bears that Texas State beat awaiting them. The 12th-seeded Bears will face the winner of UMBC and Pepperdine in the second round. Baylor went 19-6 this season split between the fall and spring and features the 2019 AVCA National Player of the Year in outside hitter Yossiana Pressley (4.66 kills per set on .247 hitting). Baylor is out-hitting opponents by nearly 100 points this season (.256 to .157).

The first three matches also won’t feel anything like a typical NCAA Tournament as all the matches will take place at the Convention Center with a small number of spectators (two guests per player). This tournament may be happening in Nebraska’s backyard, but the Huskers won’t truly feel the home court advantage until at least the regional finals when the games move to the main arena and up to 25% capacity is allowed.

A win in the Sweet 16 would likely set up a rivalry match in the Elite Eight — either with an old rival or a new one. If seedings hold, No. 4 Texas will face No. 13 Penn State in the regional semifinals. The committee showed the Nittany Lions some serious respect making them the 13 seed despite a 9-5 record (including a 1-5 mark against other tournament teams). With the Nittany Lions coming off a COVID-19 pause to end the regular season (canceling their series against Wisconsin and Nebraska), I’m having a hard time seeing them get to the regional final.

That leaves the Longhorns who went 25-1 during a split fall-spring season. That one loss came at home in five sets to a Rice team that could look to upset the Nittany Lions in the second round. The Longhorns went 3-0 against Baylor but Texas State was the only other tournament team they beat. Texas is hitting .334 this season led by pin hitters Logan Eggleston (4.57 kids per set on .333 hitting) and Skylar Fields (3.07 on .321) while holding its opponents to .168.

The Huskers have not played the Longhorns since Lexi Sun transferred to Nebraska, so that would be an extra storyline if this matchup happens. A win there would send Nebraska back to the Final Four after the Huskers failed to make it out of the regionals last year.

MORE: Bracket Breakdown | Navigating a Unique Tournament

Unfortunately, the team that sent them home in 2019 will likely be waiting for them again this year. The other side of the bracket feature some really quality teams like No. 8 Florida, No. 9 Ohio State, No. 16 BYU, UCLA, Missouri and Creighton, but I’m having a hard time seeing any of them beat No. 1 and undefeated Wisconsin. The Badgers have only played 15 matches this season, but they’ve sat atop the AVCA Coaches Poll all season long and for good reason. They’ve out-hit their opponents .342 to .128 and feature three-time All-American and 6-foot-8 force Dana Rettke (3.29 kills per set on .456 hitting) plus four others hitting over .300.

If the Huskers find a way to do what they couldn’t last season — beat Wisconsin — the Huskers could find some familiar faces waiting for them in the championship.

The No. 2 overall seed and likely favorite to come out of that side of the bracket is Kentucky, led by one of John Cook’s former assistants in Craig Skinner. The Wildcats went 19-1 with their only loss coming in five sets at Florida. They’re out-hitting opponents .361 to .144 behind the outstanding outside hitter duo of All Stumler (4.27 kills per set on .329 hitting) and Avery Skinner (3.84 on .369).

Dani Busboom Kelly, another former assistant under Cook and a former Husker player, has the Louisville Cardinals (14-2) back in the field as the No. 11 seed after making a run to the Elite Eight last season. Both losses came back in the fall against Tournament teams in Notre Dame and Pittsburgh; the Cardinals went 9-0 in the spring.

Louisville would have to avenge its tournament loss from last season against Minnesota to get back to the Final Four, though. The Gophers are the No. 3 seed at 15-2, and the Huskers split their matches early in the season.

No. 6 Washington, No. 7 Purdue (who wasn’t on Nebraska’s schedule this season) and No. 10 Oregon are the other seeded teams on the other side of the bracket who will also have a chance to earn their ticket to the final.

Nebraska out-hit its opponents .272 to .157 this season, which is short of Cook’s standard goals of .300 or better on offense and .150 or less on defense (Wisconsin and Kentucky are the only teams in the field to hit those numbers).

Lauren Stivrins is having a historic year and Nicklin Hames has taken a step forward, but Nebraska’s pin-hitters (and there are only three of them after Riley Zuhn’s season-ending foot injury) have been up and down all year. Nebraska is going to need Big Ten Player of the Week Lexi Sun to show up consistently if the Huskers are going to have a chance to pull this off, and she’s going to need some help from Madi Kubik and Jazz Sweet as well. However, the biggest keys will be the areas that let them down most in the tournament against the Badgers last year: serve and pass.

So, to recap: if seedings hold, Nebraska will have to beat Texas State, Baylor, Texas, Wisconsin and Kentucky in order to hoist the trophy in Omaha for the third time, and the Huskers will have to do it all in the span of 10 days.

Buckle up, volleyball fans. This could get wild.

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