OMAHAThere are at least two ways it might go: melt under pressure or rise to the occasion.
On a night of star-studded performances, two players who might have melted rose to the top. Both were big and strong. Both are mere freshmen.
Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani, a 64 opposite hitter for Texas (30-2), put up the game of her career in a 3-1 NCAA semifinal win over Minnesota (30-5). In a match where the two teams committed a combined 43 hitting errors, the California native had just one.
Yaazie, as she’s known, attempted a careless fourth set roll shot that ended in the net. The rest of the night, she powered shot after shot through the smallest of seams, landing balls with too much thunder to be dug. All told, Bedart-Ghani landed 15 kills and that one error on 24 attemptsan average of .583.
“For Yaazie to play the way she did as a freshmanand with no nervesis a tribute to her,” said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, whose team reached its fifth championship match in school history.
When Cook recruited Bedart-Ghani, she arrived in Austin expecting to compete for an outside hitter position. But when USC transfer Ebony Nwanabu was lost for the season to injury, Bedart-Ghani was thrown in the right side mix. “She doesn’t need any kind of stroking from the coaching staff to convince her she’s good,” said Elliott. “She embraces these situations. It shows a lot to our upperclassmen.”
In a contest as evenly-matched as any in semifinal history, the elevated play of just one athlete was bound to make a difference. Each of the first three sets were decided by two points. In the second set, neither team led by more than two points. The match was within two points for 176 of the 196 rallies.
With the score tied late in the fourth set, Bedart-Ghani rewarded an insane layout dig by teammate Cat McCoy by solo blocking Golden Gopher All-American Daly Santana. She followed with a right-side tool for a kill that gave Texas a two point lead. Minnesota was never able to pull even again.
“She was phenomenal,” said Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon of the freshman.
In the second semifinal, it was freshman Mikaela Foecke whose big performance led the way. Playing before an NCAA record crowd of 17,551most wearing Nebraska redthe 63 outside hitter powered her way to 12 kills and two aces. She proved a perfect complement to Nebraska All-American Kaadie Rolfzen (14 kills) as the Cornhuskers (31-4) did just enough to get by determined Kansas (30-3), 3-1.
“She’s physical,” said Nebraska coach John Cook of Foecke. “It really helps out our other hitters.”
Physical may be an understatement. Time and again, Foecke hammered shots that never touched a Kansas defender. She had a fair number of cross-court attacks, but admits she loves to hit line. “I swung big and went after Kansas,” she said. “They gave us a considerable amount of line.”
Even so, the Jayhawks kept it close, winning the third set, then trailing just 14-12 in fourth. The Jayhawkswho have never beaten Nebraska in 89 tries spanning 40 yearscommitted seven service errors in the first two sets. “We’ve got to get people out of system,” said Kansas coach Ray Bechard, “so we go for it.” Making adjustments at the break, KU missed just two serves the rest of the way.
The huge Nebraska crowd was loud. But that didn’t seem to phase Kansas opposite Kelsie Payne. The sophomore outside hitter seemed unstoppable at times, finishing with 22 kills on 33 swings and just three errors (.576). “It was a lot of fun to play in front of that huge crowd,” said Payne. “We were pumped to get out there.”
“I almost felt like telling our team just go for an ace when Payne’s in the front row, because we couldn’t stop her,” said Cook.
Saturday’s final will feature Nebraska vs. Texas, two longtime rivals dating back to Nebraska’s previous home in the Big-12 (and its predecessor, the Southwest Conference.) Cook, for one, will be paying close attention to the matchup between Foecke and Bedart-Ghani.
“These are two great players,” he said.