Final 8 matches set for Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas

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Blocks like this from Kadie Rolfzen, left, and twin sister Amber against TCU put the Huskers into the regional round against Penn State

This is the new NCAA volleyball reality. You have to beat the home team to get to the national semifinals.

That’s because this year, the top four seeds remaining who put in bids left after the first two rounds got to be hosts for the regionals. And not coincidentally, that means No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2. Minnesota, No. 3. Wisconsin and No. 4 Texas are playing at home Friday with all the big-crowd support that goes it.

There are eight matches Friday and four Saturday, all in a row and televised by ESPNU, with the winners advancing to the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship Dec. 15-17 in Columbus, Ohio.

Last year, Nebraska won in Omaha, just down the road from its home in Lincoln. This year, Ohio State is still left and would like nothing more than making it to its home-city arena.

Here is the schedule. The previews follow:

Nebraska Regional

No. 1 Nebraska (29-2) vs. No. 16 Penn St. (24-9), 11 a.m., ESPNU

No. 8 Washington (28-4) vs. Arizona (20-14), 1:30 p.m., ESPN3

Saturday’s final 3 p.m, ESPNU

Wisconsin Regional

No. 3 Wisconsin (27-4) vs. Ohio St. (22-12), 1 p.m., ESPNU

No. 6 Stanford (23-7) vs. Florida St. (26-5), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3

Saturday’s final 5 p.m., ESPNU

Texas Regional

No. 4 Texas (27-4) vs. No. 13 BYU (29-3), 3 p.m., ESPNU

No. 12 Michigan (24-10) vs. Creighton (28-6), 5:30 p.m., ESPN3

Saturday’s final 7 p.m, ESPNU                          

Minnesota Regional

No. 2 Minnesota (27-4)  vs. No. 15 Missouri (27-5), 7:15 p.m., ESPN3

No. 7 North Carolina (29-3) vs. No. 10 UCLA (26-6), 9:45 p.m., ESPNU

Saturday’s final 9 p.m., ESPNU

Between the 16 teams are six schools that have a total of 24 NCAA titles since women began competing for them in 1981.

Penn State (7 — 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014)

Stanford (6 — 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001,2004)

Nebraska (4 —1995, 2000, 2006, 2015)

UCLA (4 — 1984, 1990, 1991, 2011)

Texas ( 2 — 1988, 2012)

Washington (1 — 2005)

There are three matches that automatically thin the respective conference herds, because either Penn State or Nebraska and either Wisconsin or Ohio State cannot advance from the Big Ten, and either Washington or Arizona have to be gone from the Pac-12.

Nebraska vs. Penn State: It’s not quite volleyball for breakfast in Lincoln, but the 11 a.m. first serve for Penn State at Nebraska is 9 a.m. on the West Coast  and still early for the Huskers and Nittany Lions.

They played twice this season in the Big Ten, with Nebraska winning 22-25, 25-17, 25-23, 23-25, 15-11 Nov. 2 at Penn State and 25-17, 25-14, 25-22  Nov. 16 in Lincoln.

Nebraska’s lineup is a Who’s Who of college volleyball with almost everyone capable of making someone’s All-American team and a lineup loaded with experience. If the middles, Amber Rolfzen and Briana Holman, don’t get you, the outsides will in Andie Malloy and Mikaela Foecke, while right side Kadie Rolfzen is lethal and libero Justine Wong-Orantes is among the best in the game. Kelly Hunter has more options at her disposal than any other setter in the game.

Big Ten-champion Nebraska is 16-1 at home this season, losing only to Ohio State on Oct. 1, and advanced last week by beating New Hampshire and TCU. Coach John Cook, who won a title in his first season at Nebraska in 2000, is trying to repeat.

Penn State is 8-7 away from home this season, 6-6 on opponents’ home court. The Nittany Lions rely heavily on the power of outside Simone Lee and middle Haleigh Washington.

Penn State advanced by beating LIU Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. By all accounts, coach Russ Rose’s Nittany Lions will need to play a near-perfect match to win.

Arizona vs. Washington: You could argue that after Nebraska and Minnesota, Pac-12-champion Washington has the most balanced team in the tournament. Second-year coach Keegan Cook has a team with big-time firepower in hitters Courtney Schwan, Tia Scambray and Crissy Jones and has a 166 aces this season, led by Jones’ 37.

Washington won both its matches this season with Arizona, 26-24, 23-25, 28-26, 25-20 at Arizona on Oct. 23, and 25-23, 25-20, 25-20 in Seattle on Nov. 10. Four of those seven sets, obviously, were decided by two points.

The Huskies advanced by sweeping Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Kentucky.

Arizona, rather, swept Cleveland State and then won a thriller at Michigan State 17-25, 25-16, 25-19, 24-26, 15-10.

The Wildcats boast one of the more remarkable athletes in the game in senior setter Penina Snuka and have an attack centered around powerful Kendra Dahlke and Kalei Mau. Arizona is another tough serving team, second only to UW in the league 151 aces. Snuka has 34.

Wisconsin freshman Molly Haggerty hits with authority against Washington State
Wisconsin freshman Molly Haggerty hits with authority against Washington State

Wisconsin vs. Ohio State: The Badgers are 13-1 at home, losing only to Minnesota. What’re more they beat the Buckeyes in Madison on Sept. 23 25-16, 25-19, 25-17 and at Ohio State on Nov. 2 25-19, 26-24, 25-22

“Our last match I don’t feel either team played well,” Ohio State coach Geoff Carlson said. “We were both sluggish and we were just a little more sluggish. The first match at their place we were a completely different team. I think the message both coaches are giving is it doesn’t matter. This is the sweet 16 and both teams are playing with some confidence and some poise right now.”

Ohio State went to a 6-2 after losing to Indiana on Nov. 5 and since has won seven of eight. The Buckeyes are led by senior middle Taylor Sandbothe, one of the toughest players in the game. But Luisa Schirmer and Audra Appold bring big power, too, and setter Taylor Hughes is outstanding and comes in under the radar in a league with Minnesota’s Samantha Seliger-Swenson and Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini.

Speaking of whom, few setters run their respective shows better than Carlini. She’s also second on the team in digs, third in blocks and makes incredible sets that defy logic. She has some big-time weapons in freshman outside Molly Haggerty, who hits as hard as anyone, and middle Haleigh Nelson.

Wisconsin, which advanced by beating Howard and Washington State, made it to the 2013 national-title match but lost to Penn State. The next year, the Badgers lost in the regional final to Penn State when Carlini got hurt and then last year in the regional semifinals to Florida in five.

Stanford vs. Florida State: This is a rare Pac-12 vs. ACC match-up and these two programs have never played. Stanford is an interesting mix of youth and experience and resiliency, because the Cardinal overcame the early season loss to an injury of All-American Hayley Hodson. In her place a couple of freshman have been remarkable, including Kathryn Plummer and Audriana Fitzmorris. Throw in Inky Ajanaku, who has had a fabulous senior season after missing a year with a knee injury, and the versatility of junior Merete Lutz and you have a front as good as anyone’s.

Stanford advanced by sweeping both Denver and Boise State.

Florida State, rather, beat Cincinnati in four and then rallied from 0-2 — and not just 0-2 but by scores of 25-13, 25-16, to win the last three 25-23, 25-19, 15-12 at Florida.

The Seminoles are not nearly as tall as Stanford — who is? — but are scrappy and powerful. Four players have more than 200 kills, including outsides Katie Horton, who brings it on offense and is a tremendous defensive player, and Milica Kubura. Melanie Kiel and Mara Green are big blockers, and all four of those players will have to be lights out to beat Stanford.

Texas vs. BYU: Texas has the names you know, like Paulina Prieto Cerame, Ebony Nwanebu, Micaya White and Chloe Collins, the best small setter in the game. But unless you’ve followed BYU and the West Coast Conference, you might not know about the Cougars.

They have one of the best middles in the game in big Amy Boswell who remembers well the last time the two teams played, when BYU knocked the Longhorns out of the NCAA national semifinals. For that matter, BYU leads the all-time series 10-6. McKenna Miller is a big hitter and so is Veronica Jones-Perry, complemented in a balanced offense by Whitney Howard and Lacy Haddock.

Second-year coach Heather Olmstead has done a great job this year. Her team grinded early but eventually overcame San Diego and won the WCC. BYU advanced by beating Princeton and UNLV.

Texas, which ousted UT Rio Grande Valley and SMU last week, has won its last 31 NCAA matches at home where the crowd is right on top of you in Gregory Gym. Coach Jerritt Elliott, who guided the Longhorns to the 2012 NCAA title, was concerned this week about the crowd for the 3 p.m. start, but you have to imagine the UT faithful will be there.

Michigan vs. Creighton: Most observers would have expected a Michigan-Kansas battle, but coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth’s Bluejays spoiled that with the biggest upset of the first two rounds when Creighton beat Kansas at home. Creighton, that other team from Nebraska, went five to beat Northern Iowa and then five more to beat Kansas.

Lydia Demke, the Big East player of the year, is one of the best setters in the game and also plays some tough defense. She has big weapons, including Taryn Kloth, Marysa Wilkinson and Jaali Winters, who can take over a match.

Creighton is back in the round of 16 for the second straight year. The Bluejays have never played Michigan. 

Michigan seemed to get lost at times this season when focusing on the Big Ten, never seeming to get over the hump in big matches, but the Wolverines were tough when it mattered. They beat American and Oregon to advance.

Coach Mark Rosen took Michigan to the 2012 NCAA semifinals. This team has a powerful and balanced attack led by Abby Cole and Claire Kieffer-Wright, who has been especially hot of late. Setter MacKenzie Welsh has had an outstanding freshman season.

Minnesota vs. Missouri: Start with Minnesota’s 15-0 home record, throw in Big Ten player of the year Sarah Wilhite, the Tapp sisters, the league setter of the year in Samantha Seliger-Swenson and Missouri has a tough task ahead.

Missouri built momentum all season and ended up winning the SEC, regarded as the weakest of the power-five conferences. But the Tigers have a couple of the game’s best players, especially in outside Carly Kan, who at just 5-9 confounds defenses beyond belief. And the other outside, Melanie Crow, has has a breakout season. Coach Wayne Kreklow also gets big front-row play from Alyssa Munlyn and Kira Larson. His team advanced by beating Northern Illinois and Purdue in the first two rounds.

Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon has already coached the USA men’s and women’s Olympic  teams, winning gold with the men in 2008 and silver with the women in 2012.

So much emphasis is put on the Gophers’ bigs that you can forget just how good a libero Dalianliz Rosado is. Her team lost to Kansas in last year’s NCAA semifinals.

Minnesota advanced by sweeping North Dakota and Hawai’i.

Minnesota leads the all-time series 12-2, but hasn’t played Missouri since 1998.

North Carolina vs. UCLA: This one doesn’t get going, assuming no delays, until 10:45 on the East Coast, but prime time for UCLA faithful back in L.A.

In the old days, this was a showcase Pac Eight vs. ACC battle of basketball powers from the respective coasts, but in volleyball they have only played twice, the last time in 1997.

UNC coach Joe Sagula has done a masterful job with his young team, a lineup that features the ACC player of the year in sophomore Taylor Leath, three other Taylors in senior Taylor Treacy, junior Taylor Fricano and freshman Taylor Borup, and ACC freshman of the year in Julia Scoles. Senior setter Abigail Curry does a nice of job of keeping all the Taylors and young players in line.

UNC advanced by beating High Point and Coastal Carolina.

UCLA went four to beat Murray State and then swept Baylor to advance. Coach Mike Sealy’s team is balanced and scrappy, boasting one of the best liberos in the country in Taylor Formico. Junior outside Reily Buechler has a whip of an arm and seems to always be making big plays on both offense and defense and Torrey Van Winden has had a great freshman season.

After missing the tournament in 2013, UCLA lost in the first round of the regional to Penn State in 2014. Last year, UCLA lost at Texas in the first round of the regional.

Creighton’s Booth and BYU’s Olmstead, the only women coaches left in the field — are trying to become the first woman to coach a team in the national semifinals since Mary Wise took Florida there in 2003.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I can’t believe I’m actually defending the SEC, but the SEC is not the weakest of the Power 5 conferences; that distinction belongs to the ACC:
    B1G: 8/14 in, 6 hosts
    Pac: 8/12 in, 3 hosts
    B12: 6/9 in, 3 hosts
    SEC: 4/13, 2 hosts
    ACC: 3/15, 1 host

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