MINNEAPOLIS — Nearly five months after opening the season with a loss to Florida and almost two months after a stretch in which Nebraska lost three Big Ten matches in a row and five of seven, the Huskers have a chance to make program history Saturday night.
Stanford can simply make NCAA history.
Seventh-seeded Nebraska (29-6), which has won 13 matches in a row, including five in the NCAA Tournament, will try to win back-to-back titles and three of four when it faces top-seeded Stanford (33-1) in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.
The match starts at 8 p.m. Central and will be shown on ESPN2.
Never-say-die Nebraska got to the final with an improbable five-set, comeback victory Thursday over Big Ten rival Illinois, winning 22-25, 16-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-11.
Stanford, which went 20-0 in the Pac-12 and won it all two years ago, is coming off a sweep of BYU. Stanford, which has won 31 matches in a row since losing to BYU in five in August, not only beat BYU 25-15, 25-15, 25-18, it held the Cougars to a hitting percentage of minus .026. And second-year coach Kevin Hambly said he didn’t think his team played its best.
It sets up a match in the Target Center between two teams that haven’t played since August 31, 2014 — Stanford swept in Lincoln — and brings out some of college volleyball’s biggest stars.
In the case of Stanford junior outside Kathryn Plummer, that’s literal, since she’s 6-foot-6 and on Friday was named the AVCA national player of the year for the season straight season.
She’s the focal point of Stanford attack, while Nebraska senior outside Mikaela Foecke is the go-to hitter for the Huskers. Foecke was the tourney MVP as a freshman when Nebraska beat Texas, and then shared the honor last year with Kelly Hunter when it beat Florida.
Stanford is tied with Penn State for the most NCAA titles, winning in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2004 and 2016. Last year the Cardinal lost in the national semifinals.
Nebraska, in the final four for the fourth year in a row, won NCAA titles in 1995, 2000, 2006, 2015 and last year.
They had three mutual opponents.
Nebraska beat Oregon twice — including in last week’s regional final — and in the Big Ten split with Penn State and lost twice to Minnesota.
Stanford beat both Penn State and Minnesota in early September and then beat Oregon twice in Pac-12 play. Then the Cardinal beat Penn State last week in the regional final.
“The bottom line is they both earned the right to be in the match,” said Penn State coach Russ Rose, whose program is tied with Stanford’s for the most NCAA titles, seven.
“They’re both playing well. You take that component into play. They both have a key attacker in Foecke and Plummer. Stanford’s a really good blocking team and maybe has a little more experience at the setting position, but Nebraska’s been there before.”
Not that Nebraska is short, but Stanford is extremely tall, especially when you consider another 6-6 player in right side Audriana Fitzmorris.
Stanford setter Jenna Gray is a junior, while Nebraska’s Nicklin Hames is the first freshman to run the show full-time for 19th-year coach John Cook. Both teams have outstanding liberos in Stanford’s Morgan Hentz and Nebraska’s Kenzie Maloney, both teams have star middles in Stanford’s Tami Alade and Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins, and their respective supporting casts are as good as anyone’s.
Cook is after his fifth title, while Hambly took Illinois to the 2011 final before losing to UCLA.
“When you play (Stanford) you’re afraid to make mistakes and you’re afraid to get blocked, but you have to attack their block,” Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said. “And I know that looks very intimidating, but when we did have success against them it was because we were being very aggressive against the block and that made it harder for Hentz to play defense and got them a little out of their rhythm.
“And because they are so high, you can use their block at different angles and it’s really hard to defend.
“Nebraska’s very good at using the block and I think that’s been a calling card for them.”
Minnesota senior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson said both teams are improved.
“They’re both obviously great teams,” Seliger-Swenson said. “I think they’ve both gotten better throughout the season. Stanford is very physical. They have a ton of weapons and I would say that Nebraska just plays so well together.
“Like I said, they’ve gotten better throughout the season and they’ve really jelled together. They work really well together and you can tell they’ve been working with each other and for each other all season long. So I think it’s going to be a really great match.”
Either Stanford will become the all-time NCAA leader in volleyball championships or Nebraska will be able to declare itself a dynasty.
“Nebraska’s defense is really strong right now,” Oregon’s Ulmer said. “They’re a physical blocking team and serving really well. Foecke can just score at all times. If they can get Stivrins going early and she can have a big match, that will make things really close.
“I think Stanford is playing at another level. I think it’s probably the two best left playing against each other and I look forward to seeing that battle.
“Stanford just has so many weapons, but I don’t think there’s been a better player in December than Mikaela Foecke. And Nebraska finds a way to keep playing and being in every match. I’m excited. I think it’s going to be a great one.”
Cook already has 4. . . .
Fixed. Good catch.