KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Two times five — sets that is — made for a long but absolutely fascinating night of college volleyball.
And when the last ball hit the floor, a soft Rachael Kramer shot that lifted Florida past Stanford 25-22, 25-21, 18-25, 18-25, 15-10 just before the clock struck midnight in the Central time zone on Thursday, Saturday’s NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship was set:
The Gators will play Nebraska.
It’s a rematch of the second match of the season, when Florida beat the Huskers in five in Gainesville back on August 26.
“I think the difference in the match was as we anticipated,” said 27th-year Florida coach Mary Wise, the only women to previously coach a team into the championship match when she took the Gators this far in 2003. No woman coach has won the NCAA title.
“It was going to be the serve-pass game. And the fact that we went through a five-set match without giving up a single reception error and created at least enough first contact chaos against a very, very good offensive team,” Wise said. “We feel very fortunate that we’re advancing to play this next road match. But we’re thrilled, we’re going back to work tomorrow.”
She smiled as she mentioned it being a road match, because the Sprint Center in essence is like a home venue for Nebraska. For that matter, the announced crowd of 18,374 — although many of them left by the time the second match was in full swing — is an NCAA semifinals record.
“Red and loud,” Wise explained. “The numbers, this is so good for women’s volleyball. Actually, it’s great for women’s volleyball to have 18,000-plus and to be televised on ESPN … this is the growth of our sport. And our sport has grown in much part because of Nebraska. Their fans, their program, they get a whole lot of credit because they’ve been the standard bearer for years in terms of attendance figures.
“Sort of like if you’re anywhere in the Midwest, it’s been long enough where I’ve seen championships in all parts of this country, and Big Red still shows up. It’s going to be a really fun environment.”
As most expected, Nebraska and Penn State played a national semifinal for the ages. And ultimately setter Kelly Hunter turned on her teammate’s overpass, won a joust with both hands and powered the ball to the floor, and the Huskers won 25-18, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-11.
“I told you guys all week Penn State-Nebraska bring out the best in each other,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “I said it was going to be an epic match, it was. Everybody should have gotten their money’s worth. Ratings have been up. You guys have great stories to write.”
No one would argue, although it obviously brings out the very best in the Huskers, who have now beaten Penn State seven times in a row.
Nebraska (31-4) is into the final for the second time in three years — the Huskers won it all in 2015 — and will play the winner of the Stanford-Florida match. And it started about an hour, 20 minutes late, because the first semifinal was not an event that went quickly. For that matter, it set an NCAA final-four record, taking 2 hours, 51 minutes.
Mikaela Foecke led Nebraska with 19 kills, hitting .278, and had 19 digs, two assists, three blocks and one of the Huskers’ 10 aces. Briana Holman and Annika Albrecht had 13 kills each. Holman, who hit .400, had four blocks. Albrecht, who hit just .103, was 3-for-3 with no errors in the fifth, had 13 digs, a block, two aces and three assists. Libero Kenzie Maloney was at times spectacular as she had 21 digs, six assists and four aces.
And setter Kelly Hunter, who did not play against Florida in August, had a remarkable line of 47 assists, 23 digs, an ace and six blocks. She was asked about playing against and Nebraska’s respect for Penn State.
“Yeah, I mean, we talk about it every single time. Penn State’s a great team. To win four national championships in a row is just ridiculous (which Penn State did from 2007-10 and then the Nittany Lions won again in 2013 and 2014). So we say they’re the team to beat,” Hunter said.
“But Nebraska might be the team to beat too. So it’s been really cool to get to play them so many times and have that great Big Ten rivalry and come out on top. Tonight was a great match, and it was just so much fun to play, whether we were losing or nearly up or up by a lot. So they’re just always so fun to play, and it’s a great match to watch.”
The fifth set was tied 6-6, Nebraska built a 9-6 lead, but Penn State pulled to 9-8 before the Huskers pulled away, ending with Hunter powering the ball to the floor past Penn State’s Haleigh Washington.
“The pass was tight and it led me there and I finally got a jump that I won,” Hunter said. “Honestly, I was a little surprised. It was a great way to win the match. Yeah, it was awesome.”
“This team never ceases to amaze me with how resilient they are and how much fight they have and how hard they work together,” Cook said. “You know, we could have won it 3-0. We could have lost it in four. I mean, it was just a point-by-point battle, and we had the mindset going into this that we knew that’s what it is going to be like. I think the Big Ten prepares us for matches like these. There’s never any panic on our side, and they just continued to grind through it.
It’s a great win, and just really happy for these guys. They just showed what they’re all about. That’s why they’re Big Ten champions.”
Penn State (33-2) lost only to Nebraska this season. The Huskers won in a sweep in the Big Ten opener for both teams in September. Simone Lee led with 18 kills. She hit .260, had 15 digs, a solo block, and two of the Nittany Lions’ five aces.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome. I’m not disappointed in the players or the university that I work at. But I am certainly disappointed in, you know, the outcome of the match. I thought the kids played hard. And other than serving and some passing issues, I thought we were competing well in a tough environment,” said 39th-year Penn State coach Russ Rose, whose team had not played five sets since early October.
Washington added 13 kills, hit .273, and had three digs and six blocks. Ali Frantti added nine kills, but struggled terribly through four sets. She finished hitting .049 and had 10 digs and two blocks. Heidi Thelen also had nine kills and had seven blocks, one solo.
“I think what Nebraska does is they have good service pressure. They’re a good defensive team,” Rose said. “Those things kind of go hand in hand. They don’t make a lot of errors. We had a free ball coming over the net for match point and two girls other collided and fell. So then you go into the fifth game and you miss two serves and get aced and have five hitting errors. That’s why teams lose.
“I think we clearly had opportunities to win the match, but we didn’t win the match. So you recognize the efforts of the other guys and this business you appreciate the efforts of your seniors, and we had a lot of kids that were seniors. Certain programs get judged by winning national championships and not just their day-to-day effort. The efforts that we’ve had over the course of time have placed us into a little different area. This group hasn’t been able to close the deal as they did when they were on a team as freshmen.”
Florida (30-1) lost only to fellow SEC co-champion Kentucky this season. The Gators hit on all cylinders early, appeared overwhelmed in the third and fourth sets, and then controlled the fifth.
Rhamat Alhassan led the Gators with 17 kills. She had just two errors in 29 swings, hit .517 and added four blocks and an ace. Alhassan had three of those kills in five errorless swings in the fifth set, when she had two blocks.
“Definitely gut check. Our theme has kind of been we’ve found a way to win. We’ve always found a way to win, and that’s been the theme throughout the entire tournament,” Alhassan said. “Going into a fifth set like that, it’s quick. It was just kind of going in and being able to be quick and know that, OK, this is short. How are we going to do it? Just kind of our mentality towards it.”
Carli Snyder only hit .196, but the lanky outside had 16 kills after taking a match-high 56 swings. She had three of Florida’s six aces, nine digs and two blocks. Shainah Joseph had 11 kills and Kramer had eight. She hit .000 but had five blocks.
Defending NCAA-champion Stanford’s season ended 30-4.
“Congratulations to Mary and her team, Florida. I thought they played a great match,” first-year Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “They came out ready to play from the beginning, and I thought they really competed at a high level.
“Credit to them to be up 2-0, and lose that lead, but turn that around in the fifth set. That’s a hard thing to do for them, and, you know, congratulations to them in that aspect. ”
Merete Lutz led with 19 kills and had just two errors in 38 swings to hit .447. Kathryn Plummer had 16 kills and eight digs and Meghan McClure had 11 kills and 12 digs. Libero Morgan Hentz, who made incredible dig after incredible dig, had 25 total and added six assists.
“I don’t know if they were doing anything special that made it hard on us. We just weren’t playing our style of game,” Plummer said, still fighting back tears 45 minutes after the loss. “Yeah, they’re big, they’re physical, but we like to play that style of game. That’s what we see every day in practice. So I don’t think it was necessarily anything that they did anything special, it was just that we didn’t play as well as we could.”