COLUMBUS, Ohio — So much potential.
Potentially two great matches.
Potentially the largest U.S. television audience ever for volleyball other than the Olympics.
Sub-freezing temperatures outside, but hot competition inside Nationwide Arena for the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship.
At 7 p.m. Eastern, second-seeded Minnesota plays No. 6 Stanford.
And then at 9:30, No. 1 Nebraska plays No. 4 Texas.
Four giant universities steeped in NCAA volleyball tradition with 12 national titles between three of them and, for the first time, the semifinals on the Worldwide Leader’s main network, ESPN.
Minnesota of the Big Ten is 29-4 and has never won a title, although the Gophers are back in the final four for the second straight year. Stanford of the Pac-12 is 25-7 and has won six titles, the last in 2004. Earlier this season, on August 28 at Stanford, the Cardinal beat Minnesota in four.
Defending-champion Nebraska is 31-2 and won the Big Ten. The Huskers have four national titles to their credit. And Texas of the Big 12 is 26-4 and has won two NCAA championships, the last in 2012. Nebraska swept Texas in last year’s NCAA championship match and this past August 27 in Eugene, Oregon, Nebraska swept Texas.
In 1984, the USA won men’s volleyball gold in Los Angeles and two members of that team, Karch Kiraly and Paul Sunderland, are calling the matches here for ESPN.
Sunderland is a fixture on volleyball broadcasts, but is replacing Beth Mowins as the lead and working this event for the first time since 1988. Kiraly, the USA women’s Olympic coach who led the team to a bronze medal is Rio, has been doing ESPN analysis at the final four for 10 years.
Kiraly was quick to point out that Mowins, who has other ESPN events to work, was a longtime NCAA volleyball fixture and part of the tradition.
“But the other side of it is I get to work with a great friend who’s a consummate professional who knows the sport really well and we have a good time together,” Kiraly said.
“Hopefully that comes through on the broadcast and we’re here to try to help people learn a little more about the game, appreciate it more, and there’s so much to appreciate in these four teams here. It’s going to be a great national semifinals.”
Kiraly brings up an interesting point. Because the matches moved to ESPN, there will likely be a large portion of the audience watching volleyball for the first time, so the learning aspect might be part of it. But the volleyball community tends to get frustrated when the broadcasts are too much like Volleyball 101. And it’s such a potentially huge opportunity to grow the sport by moving to ESPN.
“I think it’s somewhere in the middle,” Sunderland said. “Both Karch and I have had the opportunity to call multiple Olympic Games and when you do an Olympics it’s a huge audience with a lot of people tuning in singularly for that experience. And we might get a lot of that tomorrow. We might get a lot of that. But we’ve both been doing this for a long time and we know how to find that balance.
“I agree that it’s a real neat opportunity for the sport and hope the matches live up to it and hope that we can replicate some of what we had last week in the regionals (where the competitions were fierce and that ratings were high) and then we can just be real quiet,” Sunderland said with a laugh. “It will take care of itself.”
“I would remind people that this is really cool that this got moved to ESPN,” Kiraly added. “The interest from that came from how great things were with hosted regionals last weekend but I would also caution people not to think it’s going to happen every year. ESPN has a lot of contractual obligations, but it’s great that people were thinking, ‘Wow, we want to do this.’ It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen every year, but just the fact that people were interested in doing that is a really good sign for the sport.”
Before last weekend in Lincoln, the former Olympic teammates hadn’t worked together in a while.
“Karch and I are quite a bit separated in age,” Sunderland said. “I only bring that up because when were teammates we were in different places in our lives, I was 32, Karch was 23, and I was a father and I was married. We were close as teammates, but we didn’t have much opportunity to be together much outside because we had different lives at that stage.
“And then we re-connected because we covered the beach together and then Karch and I got to spent really meaningful time together over dinner, in hotels, on airplanes, when we started working for Fox.”
From about 2006-09 they worked together before Kiraly became an assistant coach for the USA women’s team.
“We were working for the Pac-12, might have been the Pac-10 at that time,” Kiraly said.
As far as the matches go, the pair like Nebraska and Minnesota.
Stanford starts four freshmen but the leader is senior Inky Ajanaku, who missed all of last year recovering from knee surgery.
“I love the Stanford story. Four freshmen being inspired by Inky,” Kiraly said. “I think that’s something really interesting. Inky was not destined to be with that special recruit group. She was with her own special recruit group and then an injury that hurt them in the short term might really have helped them in the long term, because that’s a special group.”
“Nebraska and Minnesota are the two best teams in the country,” Sunderland said. But both acknowledge that anything can happen, especially after seeing first-hand Penn State go up 2-0 at Nebraska last weekend.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect team,” Sunderland said. “You’re just as good as you are that day.”
Sunderland had a lot of praise for Minnesota.
“I do hope it’s a really good match and I think Stanford is playing really well, but I think Minnesota would prevail. Not just because of intangibles, I just think they’re marginally a better team.”