COLUMBUS, Ohio — The match isn’t what we expected.
But if you go back to early August, to the AVCA Division I Coaches preseason poll, it’s not like a final between Texas and Stanford is that far-fetched. After all, Texas was ranked No. 2 and Stanford No. 11.
Sure, all season long all eyes were on Nebraska and Minnesota. But they’re gone, and all that remain after pre-conference play, grueling conference competitions and a wonderfully entertaining NCAA Tournament are fourth-seeded Texas and No. 6 Stanford.
And they will play for the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship at 9 p.m. Eastern in Nationwide Arena on ESPN2 as Stanford (26-7) tries to tie Penn State for the lead with its seventh NCAA title, its first since 2004, and Texas (27-4) goes for crown No. 3 its first since 2012.
Texas has never had a losing streak. The Longhorns lost their second match of the season to Nebraska, lost to visiting Wisconsin in mid-September, lost at Kansas on Oct. 29 in Big 12 play, and then at Iowa State on Nov. 12.
But since then, the Longhorns have won eight in a row, including in the NCAA Tournament beating UT Rio Grande Valley, SMU, BYU, Creighton and then that stunning sweep of No. 1 Nebraska on Thursday.
Stanford’s ride was a lot more bumpy, but the Cardinal won 10 of their last 11 Pac-12 matches and have won nine in a row, including NCAA Tournament victories over Denver, Boise State, Florida State, Wisconsin and then its surprise win in four over No. 2 Minnesota on Thursday.
Both teams had to overcome the loss of a key player and then make some magic in this tournament.
Before the season began, Texas lost senior middle Chiaka Ogbogu, a 2015 AVCA first-team All-American, who was declared academically ineligible.
On Oct. 5, Stanford announced that All-American sophomore outside Hayley Hodson, the VolleyballMag.com 2015 national freshman of the year, had taken a medical leave from school after playing in just 27 sets.
In the NCAA Tournament, Texas won its first two matches but then had to make a remarkable comeback in the fifth set against BYU after falling behind 5-0 and still trailing 11-5 and 12-7 before winning 16-14, winning the last three points to survive and advance.
In the regional final at Wisconsin, Stanford trailed the home team, the No. 3 seed, 2-0 before rallying to win in five.
Texas and Stanford did not play this season but have met up seven times in NCAA Tournament play, the last time when Stanford beat Texas in the national semifinals in 2008.
Both teams, of course, are playing extremely well, but offer some unusual contrasts. Stanford fields the tallest lineup maybe ever in the women’s college game with two 6-foot-6 freshmen in middle Audriana Fitzmorris and outside Kathryn Plummer, the AVCA naitonal freshman of the year. The Cardinal setter is 6-1 freshman Jenna Gray, and when she rotates to the back row, the right side is 6-8 junior Merete Lutz, the tallest player in the match. What’s more, the other middle is 6-3 senior Inky Ajanaku, who gets up as high as anyone in the match.
Texas is not small, but its senior setter, 5-7 Chloe Collins, a superior leaper, will certainly be a target.
Where Texas is big is on the right side with 6-4 junior Ebony Nwanebu, who might be having the best tournament of anyone. The middles are 6-3 sophomore Morgan Johnson and 6-4 Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani, while the outsides are 6-2 Paulina Prieto Cerame and 6-1 freshman Micaya White.
Both liberos are outstanding. Stanford’s is 5-9 freshman Morgan Hentz, while Texas relies on a veteran in 5-7 junior Cat McCoy. Hentz, a converted outside hitter playing libero for the first time this season, and the experience McCoy could well be the deciding factors.
And about McCoy’s experience: She and her teammates only know what it’s like to finish a season at this event, because this is Texas’s fifth consecutive trip to at least the national semifinals. The Longhorns on the roster lost in the 2013 semifinals the year after Texas won the title, in 2014 lost in the semifinals to BYU and last year lost in the national-championship match to Nebraska.
Height advantage Stanford.
Strength advantage Texas.
Experience advantage Texas.
Coaching? Two veterans of the game with impressive resumes. Jerritt Elliot is in his 16th season at Texas and over the past five years has pretty much established his team as the one to beat each season. Stanford’s John Dunning, the AVCA national coach of the year, won two national titles at Pacific and then two since he took over at Stanford, also 16 years ago.
Finally, every coach always reminds you of the importance of the serve-and-pass game.
For the season, Texas has 115 aces, one per set, while it’s been aced 111 times. The Longhorns also have a whopping 264 service errors.
Conversely, Stanford has 121 aces, also one per set, and has been aced 117 times. Stanford has 173 service errors.
There’s been a lot of serves since the season started August 26, when Texas beat Oregon and San Diego stunned Stanford. Typical of the way things would continue to go all season long, the next day Texas lost to Nebraska, while Stanford bounced back and beat Minnesota.
And some how, some way, it all came full circle and, while it might not have been the match-up we expected, late Saturday night either Texas or Stanford will be the 2016 NCAA champion.