PITTSBURGH — Good Thursday morning from Pittsburgh, where the wake-up temperature was 12 degrees.
At the risk of sounding corny, things will heat up considerably in the PPG Paints Arena tonight for the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship.
Top-seeded Baylor (29-1) vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (26-6) at 7 p.m.
Seventh-seeded Minnesota (27-5) vs. No. 3 Stanford (28-4), scheduled for 9:30 p.m. — as if.
Both will be shown on ESPN, while Saturday’s national-title match goes to ESPN2.
The Worldwide Leader has the A team here, with Paul Sunderland on the play-by-play and USA Olympic coach Karch Kiraly handling the analysis. Holly Rowe will be working the court and Courtney Lyle and Salima Rockwell are doing an in-between-matches show.
Kiraly gets to see firsthand how one of his prodigies is doing in 6-foot-8 Wisconsin junior middle Dana Rettke, who played for him last summer when Team USA qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
You have to imagine that Kiraly is checking out some others, too, including 6-6 senior outside Kathryn Plummer of Stanford, and senior libero teammate Morgan Hentz.
There are so many story lines Thursday night, not the least of which is that both matches are between teams that played each other in the preseason.
Baylor, which tied with Texas for the Big 12 title, went to eventual Big Ten winner Wisconsin and won in four on September 6. But, as both teams said, both teams are markedly different than the last time they played in so many ways.
Baylor, which lost only to Texas in Big 12 play and has won 13 in a row since, boasts the hottest player in the tournament in junior outside Yossiana Pressley. The high-flying 6-footer is hitting on all cylinders and against Washington in the regional final, had 24 kills — coming from seemingly everywhere on the court — and hit .512 after having three errors in 41 swings.
She’s not a one-woman show, but Pressley’s the key. Middle Shelly Stafford has established herself as one of the best in the country and setter Hannah Lockin is probably better than most people realize. A late-season surge from Dutch lefty Marieke van der Mark has pushed the Bears to another level in this tournament.
But they have to contend with the most powerful team overall in the field in Wisconsin. The aforementioned Rettke is a one-person wrecking crew, a monster blocker, vicious on the slide, and, well, you can’t teach 6-foot-8.
Wisconsin is the most complete team in the field. The other middle, Danielle Hart, would be the first middle for most other teams in the country. The outside hitters are master blasters in Molly Haggerty and Grace Loberg, while right side Madison Duello flat-out brings it. And setter Sydney Hilley can do it all — very well.
And Wisconsin uses more subs than anyone and it shows through the spectacular defense of libero Tiffany Clark and defensive specialists ME Dodge and Lauren Barnes and serving specialist Izzy Ashburn.
Minnesota middle Regan Pittman has finally gotten the recognition she deserves. But when the threesome of Adanna Rollins, Alexis Hart, and Stephanie Samedy are on — and they have been, which is why the Gophers are here — Minnesota, which tied for second in the B1G, is tough to beat.
The Gophers were especially tough on September 13 at Penn State when they broke Stanford’s 37-match winning streak. At the time, Kylie Miller was the setter and running a 5-1, but then she was concussed and missed a total of 13 matches. In her absence Minnesota tried a 6-2, a 5-1, and simply wasn’t the same team without her. She’s back and all is good with the Gophers.
Stanford, which ran away with the Pac-12 despite Plummer missing significant time with an injury, has been here, done that.
The defending-champion Cardinal is after its third title in four years, which would more or less immortalize this senior class of setter Jenna Gray, Audriana Fitzmorris, Hentz, and Plummer in the annals of college volleyball.
Stanford also has two strong middles in Madeleine Gates and Holly Campbell — they’re good, but you could make the argument that Stanford’s middles are the fourth best of these four teams. The other outside is Meghan McClure, certainly the most underrated player in the country.
All things being equal, Stanford has the great un-equalizer in the big, strong Plummer, this volleyball generation’s version of Shaquille O’Neal.
Both matches, from all indications, should be outstanding. After a long season that started on August 30, these are the final four. Let’s hope for great play and a big audience on ESPN.
It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of these epic matchups go five! Can’t wait!