Round up the usual suspects, plus Kansas.
Yes, Kansas. Welcome to the heart-of-the-country NCAA Division I Volleyball Championships.
Three teams from the Midwest and another from directly south.
Ocean waves? Mountains? None of that. Just middle-of-America volleyball.
We’ll get to that in a bit, but first, how about ninth-seeded Kansas?
Down 13-9 in the fifth to No. 1 USC. Six consecutive points, a 25-18, 25-21, 22-25, 19-25, 15-13 victory, celebration on, volleyball world stunned. Kansas has its own House of Payne (sorry, but someone had to say it).
And now we have the match-ups for Thursday night in Omaha, Minnesota playing Texas followed by Nebraska essentially playing host to Kansas.
When we caught up with Kansas coach Ray Bechard on October 9 for a DVB video chat, his team was unbeaten and having a blast. I introduced the piece by noting that Kansas, 16-0 at the time, was one of the best-kept secrets in the college volleyball. But a team that was going to make it to Omaha?
Kansas is now 30-2. The losses were to Big 12 foe Texas, in three in Austin and in five in Lawrence. If you watched Saturday night, you know the Jayhawks are for real. Especially Kelsie Payne, a 6-foot-3 sophomore who was moved from the middle to right side who just happens to be from Austin, Texas, and who had 69 swings Saturday.
Payne not only had a team-high 18 kills (she also had seven errors and hit .159) but four block assists and was at times simply a beast. Three of her teammates had 10 kills each and offensive balance was something Bechard talked about when we did our video chat.
We’ll have plenty on Kansas later in the week, but for now, wow.
USC (33-3), rather, goes into the offseason looking for answers about how a team ranked No. 1 most of the season collapsed when it mattered most.
It loses the probable national player of the year in Samantha Bricio (25 kills, 11 errors in 76 — yes, 76 — attacks) who had six serve-receive errors. The only other senior is middle Alicia Ogoms. The Women of Troy are young with great players coming in, but to suggest that coach Mick Haley and staff have some figuring out to do is an understatement.
Nebraska (30-4) plays with an air of confidence that comes with knowing you have the remarkable lanky Rolfzen twins (Kadie had 20 kills and 15 digs, while Amber had nine kills, eight blocks and four digs), a libero as good as anyone’s in Justine Wong-Orantes and the experience of getting through the Big Ten rigors.
Washington (31-3) had a tremendous season, but in the end was just not good enough to keep up with the Huskers, who won 25-17, 21-25, 25-20, 25-21. Big props to a team that lost its coach when Jim McLaughlin left for Notre Dame but never missed a beat under Keegan Cook, who will do great things in Seattle.
Minnesota didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament in 2014. Now the Gophers are 30-4 after holding off an extremely tough Hawaii 25-18, 25-13, 24-26, 25-21. Minnesota hit .403 and if you have never seen Daly Santana lay some lumber, you’re missing out on one of the great hitters in the college game. The senior from Puerto Rico had 26 kills, hit .483, had 12 digs and three blocks. No wonder she was named top player in the Big Ten.
Hawaii’s season ended 29-2, but you have to have tremendous respect and admiration for the Rainbow Wahine and coach Dave Shoji, who completed his 41st season,which just happened to be one of the best of his career. Here’s the best part: Hawaii only has two seniors, really good ones in Olivia Magill and Tai Manu-Olevao, but Rainbow Wahine should be in the hunt again next year with a team that starts with do-it-all star Nikki Taylor, who will be a junior.
And now the Texas-Florida match.
Volleyball, like any sport, has officials who make incorrect calls. It’s part of the game and it’s incumbent upon the affected team to shake it off and play on. But that’s easier said than done.
In the fifth set of a wild, up-and-down match, Florida trailed Texas 7-6 when it got a kill, theoretically tying the game at 7-7.
But the ball, at least a foot in, was called out, and all hell broke loose. Florida was clearly rattled, fell behind 11-7, and then finally regrouped.
Florida actually took the lead 13-12 and then it got serious. Texas made an interesting sub, taking out diminutive setter Chloe Collins for 6-3 Croatian Mirta Baselovic and ultimately it paid off, when Baselovic stopped Florida’s best weapon, Rhamat Alhassan when it mattered most.
It took Texas four points to win it, which the Longhorns ultimately did on back-to-back kills by Paulina Prieto Cerame, who had a team-high 18.
The final: 22-25, 25-22, 25-19, 20-25, 17-15, leaving Texas 29-2 and moving on once again. The three seniors, Molly McCage, Amy Neal and Kat Brooks, only know what it’s like to play in the national semifinals. What’s more, this is Texas’s seventh trip in eight years.
Florida, which had that midseason three-match losing streak, ended 25-7. But you never know what might have happened had that call been made correctly. It truly was one time when the competition was seriously affected, but that’s sports.
Florida loses five seniors, including setter Mackenzie Dagostino, but the Gators will be the team to beat again next year in the Southeastern Conference.
It’s almost hard to believe that a Pac-12 team didn’t make it. Regardless of this tournament, clearly the Big Ten and Pac-12 were the best overall conferences this season. But the Big 12 deserves to be applauding itself with two teams in for only the second time and first since 2008, when Texas and Nebraska (which has since changed leagues) made it.
Anyway, let’s talk geography.
The home team, Nebraska: Lincoln to Omaha, 58 miles.
Which plays Kansas: Lawrence to Omaha, 206 miles.
Minnesota: Minneapolis to Omaha, 377 miles.
Which plays Texas, Austin to Omaha, 853 miles.
OK, Texas is a haul, but here’s the thing:
None of those final-four teams are from the West Coast. What’s more, this is where their respective players are from:
Texas has 11 players from the Lone Star State. It also has players from Hawaii, Colorado, Croatia, Puerto Rico and one from California. That happens to be freshman Bedart-Ghani, no small factor for the Longhorns.
Nebraska has seven players from Nebraska (including the Rolfzens and setter Kelly Hunter, who are all from nearby Papillion), two each from Illinois and California, and one each from Iowa, Kentucky, Texas and Sweden.
Minnesota has a mix, but nine players from the state of Minnesota. It has two each from Michigan and Puerto Rico and one each from California, Colorado and Washington.
Kansas is pretty Midwest. The Jayhawks have six from Kansas, and one each from Missouri and Nebraska. But the roster also includes five Texans and a Puerto Rican plus a player from Colorado and another from Nevada.
What does it all mean? Maybe not much, but for someone who was up so late watching volleyball for nearly nine hours and with little sleep, it simply came to mind and I wanted to put it out there for your perusal.
This should be a great week in Omaha. The AVCA Convention will be bursting at the seams and, of course, most everyone who’s anyone in women’s volleyball will be there. The four teams are all deserving and hopefully will provide us with three great matches.
But there’s a part of me sad not to see, for example, USC’s Bricio hit again, or watch Wisconsin junior Lauren Carlini set on the big stage, or see Hawaii’s Dave Shoji coach for a title one more time. I’ll miss two of my faves, Stanford seniors Brittany Howard and Madi Bugg, and would love to see Cassie Strickland of Washington dig another ball with reckless abandon. There are so many others, but that’s the great thing about the sport. There are so many wonderful players and coaches you would like to see in the spotlight.
In the meantime, how cool is it to see one of the greatest coaches volleyball has ever known in Hugh McCutcheon leading Minnesota? Or Kansas’ Bechard, a state-of-Kansas guy through and through, taking his dream job 13 years ago and finally making it to the semifinals? Or undersized Texas hitter Amy Neal, a remarkable athlete who is from Austin, get one more shot at winning it all?
Texas has a great following and there will be plenty of burnt orange in Omaha, but nothing like the sea of red that the Nebraska folks will bring.
As a famous quarterback once said quite often, Omaha! Omaha!
Bring it on.