PITTSBURGH – Tiffany Clark and ME Dodge sat forward in their chairs on Friday afternoon, smiling wide.
“This,” Dodge, one of Wisconsin’s two liberos said of Saturday night’s NCAA Championship between her Badgers and the Stanford Cardinal, “is what we live for.”
And for that matter, who in the world of volleyball doesn’t live for a final like this?
Saturday’s 8 p.m. championship (ESPN2) is missing nothing. It is bereft of all want or need. It is a matchup of the game’s most storied program in Stanford (29-4), a power of eight NCAA titles, vs. one of the NCAA’s fastest rising teams in Wisconsin (27-6), a budding power — if it isn’t one already — that has made seven consecutive round-of-16 appearances but has yet to win a national title.
It is a matchup of two of the best offensive players in the country — Wisconsin middle Dana Rettke and Stanford outside Kathryn Plummer — against two of the nation’s top defensive units.
It is a matchup pitting two liberos, Morgan Hentz of Stanford and Clark of Wisconsin, playing at the tops of their games.
It is a matchup that is decorated with hitters from all sides and angles, being set by national team-caliber setters in Stanford’s Jenna Gray and Wisconsin’s Sydney Hilley.
It’s Pac-12 vs. Big 10.
West Coast vs. Midwest.
Big versus — and can you believe this? — even bigger.
“Our team’s not going to flinch tomorrow,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “I’ve been around them enough. I know them well enough to know. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to win. That other team on the other side of the net is a special team. Very well coached. They’ll come in with a lot of confidence.
“I’d be surprised if the stage is too big for our group either. That’s one of the things that there’s a lot — got a large junior and senior class. The Big Ten is a pretty tough conference and they played in front of big crowds and they’ve played match after match after match against really elite teams. So whether our best is good enough, I think we’ll find out. But I don’t think this stage will be too big.”
No stage has been too big for either team, or any individual player on either team. On one side is Rettke, Wisconsin’s first-team All-American middle, matching up with Plummer, the two-time AVCA national player of the year and fellow USA national-team member. Rettke was a member of the USA team that qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; Plummer played outside for the USA Pan American team that won gold.
There is yet to be a stage that has proven too big for Hentz, whom Sheffield described as “one of the greatest liberos our country’s ever seen.”
Hentz proved her mettle once more in Thursday’s semifinals as she helped limit a hot Minnesota team to hit just .164. And on the other side will be Clark and Dodge, who held Baylor’s Yossiana Pressley to less than .200 in Wisconsin’s 3-1 semifinal victory over the Bears.
“They make you work for every point,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “They don’t give you points. It’s always been the case. And they scrap on defense and they compete really hard. They talk a lot about being gritty. You see that when you play them. They’re going to be gritty. And we have to be gritty back.”
Thus far in the tournament, both teams have been at once the most formidable offensive and toughest defensive teams. On Thursday, Plummer turned in an offensive performance so sublime that Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon figured that, if she needed to, the 6-foot-6 outside would have found a way to earn a kill from the bench. She didn’t, and Hambly acknowledged the fact that, against a team like Wisconsin, with Rettke patrolling the middle, it’s not advisable for Plummer to be relied upon so heavily.
“I think I’ll be surprised if we look at the box score and she doesn’t have the most swings in the match. But if we can get other people going like (Audriana Fitzmorris and Madeleine Gates), I think we need those guys to balance it out, we’ll have a better shot to win, for sure,” Hambly said.
“I don’t think any of us like the number of swings she had last night. I think she did an incredible job and was extremely efficient, and we weren’t getting as much production out of, especially Fitzmorris took a while to get going until the third, so we had to rely on her. It’s nice to know that we have that. But if we end up in a five-set match relying on her the whole time, I think we’ll have some issues.”
It’s been quite a while since either team has run into many issues. Wisconsin has only dropped one set in its previous six matches; Stanford has won 16 straight and may be the healthiest it has been all season.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of weaknesses for both teams,” Sheffield said. “I think both teams are pretty complete. Both teams serve and pass the ball really well. They put up an amazing block up there out of system. Hentz is one of the greatest liberos our country’s ever seen. They’ve got a really good setter that knows exactly what she needs to do, and both teams have really good setters. Both teams have great liberos and defensive players. Both teams have an aircraft carrier that can take an awful lot of the — shoulder a lot if needed. But really other good parts that do their job.
“I don’t know. It’s two really good teams that believe in themselves playing really good volleyball right now. I think for the first time all season both teams seem pretty healthy, and I think that’s going to make it pretty fun.”