COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was no way the last match of the greatest season in NCAA volleyball history wasn’t going five.

And there was no way Dana Rettke was going to be denied on match point. 

Rettke, a fifth-year senior at Wisconsin, took a back set from best friend Sydney Hilley and blasted the ball to the floor, ending a fantastic rally that gave the Badgers a 22-25, 31-29, 25-23, 23-25, 15-12 win over Nebraska and the NCAA volleyball championship.

“It was a heck of a match, just an absolute grind. And that’s how it should be, right, I guess, to do this,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said.

“Just an unbelievable performance by Nebraska. Unbelievable performance by our kids as well. It was just every player putting their entire heart and soul into a match. It was great.”

Wisconsin, which had lost in the 2013 and 2019 finals, becomes the 12th school to win an NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship, and it did so by winning a match fitting of the two best teams from the best conference.

“You can see, look at this, three deuce games — 31-29, 25-23, 23-25. That’s what a national championship should be,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “And we had our chances. So did Wisconsin, they converted a couple more than we did.

“You’ve got to give them credit. It’s not like we lost those — they had to earn them. We didn’t give them away. It was great volleyball. They executed and found ways to win those points.”

Anna Smrek had two remarkable matches for Wisconsin in Columbus/Wall Nell photo

Fourth-seeded Wisconsin (31-3), the Big Ten champion, was led by 6-foot-9 Canadian freshman Anna Smrek, who followed her almost unbelievable semifinals performance with 14 more kills with just two errors in 28 attacks to hit .429. She also had seven blocks. In Wisconsin’s five-set win over Louisville on Thursday, Smrek had 20 kills with one error in 27 attacks and three blocks, capping perhaps the greatest final-four performance ever by a freshman. 

Tenth-seeded Nebraska, which finished second in the Big Ten, ended its season 26-8.

Wisconsin, which finished the season by winning its last 11 matches, got 12 kills from Jade Demps, who hit .346 after having three errors in 26 attacks. She had nine digs and an ace. Rettke overcame a slow start and finished with 11 kills — four in the fifth set — hit .290, and had 13 blocks, three in the first five points in the fifth set when Wisconsin bolted to a 7-0 lead.

Rettke took a long time last spring to decide if she would come back for a fifth year. Now, after being named an AVCA All-American and that group’s national player of the year (the All-American teams and top players will come out Wednesday), Rettke is a national champion.

“Oh, my gosh, 100 percent worth it. Just like this feeling and this team, been some ups and downs, and I know every team experiences that. But this group was so special,” Rettke said.

“And I think it’s one thing to really think about being a national champion and training to be in the national championship. That’s one thing, but being in a national championship is another. We really did that. So that was awesome, and I’m just so thankful that this group of seniors came back, and we got the job done.”

Grace Loberg, who said in our story before the match that she expected “a bloodbath,” had 10 kills, also overcame a slow start and added four digs and three blocks. Devyn Robinson had six kills and although she hit .000 had a dig and 10 blocks. Julia Orzol had five kills and hit negative, but had an ace, 12 digs, and six blocks.

Hilley had two kills, 51 assists, 13 digs, and five blocks. Her team hit .183.

“We kind of got to celebrate that moment twice because we thought we won. It was like wait, wait, no you didn’t. We kind of got to do two celebrations,” Hilley said.

“So I think most of it was just shock. You look around, everyone’s crying. You could see how much love there is with every single person on this team. And the fans were incredible. And it’s an amazing moment I’ll never forget just seeing how happy my teammates were. And that’s the best feeling.”

Libero Lauren Barnes had 31 digs and seven assists. Giorgia Civita had nine digs, an ace, and an assist, and Izzy Ashburn had four aces.

Nebraska had won six in a row since it lost to Wisconsin for the second time in the regular season. The Huskers hit .141. Madi Kubik led with 19 kills but hit .106, and added two assists, 14 digs, and two blocks. She appeared to sail match point out of bounds to give Wisconsin a 15-11 win, but Cook challenged that there was a tip. He won, but Rettke vehemently denied the touch. After a tremendous rally by both teams on the next point, Rettke left no doubt.

In the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin swept Colgate, FGCU, 13th-seeded UCLA, and 12th-seeded Minnesota, also of the Big Ten, before knocking out top-seeded and previously unbeaten Louisville in the semifinals.

Nebraska had won five titles in nine previous finals appearances. Kayla Caffey had 15 kills for the Huskers, with seven error in 30 attacks, and added a dig, and four blocks. At one point early in the third set, she had 13 kills with four errors in 21 swings. Lindsay Krause had 12 kills, six digs, and five blocks. Ally Batenhorst had 11 kills and two blocks, and Lauren Stivrins had 10 kills, two digs, and five blocks. 

Nicklin Hames had 56 assists, an ace, 23 digs, and a block. Keonilei Akana had an ace and 24 digs, and Lexi Rodriguez had 13 digs and four assists.

“I think the fans got their money’s worth,” Cook said. “It was a great match with two great teams and not a lot of separation in points like it has been all year. It was a great match.

“And I told our team that this might be the most proud I’ve been of a Nebraska team, how they handled the season, the setbacks, the losses to get to this match and play like that and even get way down in the fifth and fight our way back.”

Wisconsin’s Julia Orzol goes all out in the first set of the 2021 NCAA title match against Nebraska/Michael Gomez photo

Nebraska advanced in the NCAA Tournament with sweeps of Campbell, Florida State, and Illinois, and then upset No. 2 Texas on its home floor in four-sets in the regional final. The Huskers beat third-seeded Pitt in the national semifinals.

This season, Wisconsin and Nebraska played twice. Wisconsin swept at Nebraska 26-24, 25-19, 25-23 on October 27. Then the Badgers won in four on November 26 at home, 14-25, 25-23, 26-24, 25-18.

“The last few weeks have been really exciting,” Stivrins said. “It’s been a lot of fun to compete with this team. And I think that’s obviously what got us here, how much we love each other and how much we love playing.

“It’s been a joy to play with them. And I’m obviously not happy the way it ended, but I’m happy that we got to this point.”

Nebraska is one of the 12 schools to have won an NCAA title. The Huskers won in 1995 under Terry Pettit, and in 2000, 2006, 2015, and 2017 under Cook. Stanford has nine titles; Penn State seven; UCLA four; Hawai’i, Long Beach State, and USC three each; Pacific and Texas two each; and Kentucky and Washington one each.

This was the second time the programs met in the season’s last match.

Nebraska beat Wisconsin in the 2000 NCAA final, Cook’s first year as the head coach of the Huskers. He previously was the head coach at Wisconsin for seven years before taking over at Nebraska, which went 34-0 that season. The 2021 championship marked his 100th NCAA tourney match. 

Wisconsin’s Jade Demps, left, and Giorgia Civita let the Nebraska ball go out of bounds/Michael Gomez photo



  1. Three of the Power five conferences had an above .500 record against teams from other conferences in the NCAA tournament. The Pac 12 was barely above the mark finishing 7-6. The ACC was a very good 12-5. The big 10 showed that it was definitely the best conference in volleyball, finishing 22-4.


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