Just one team played all four of the finalists at the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship. And Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield was kind enough to offer an extremely candid analysis of all four.
His Badgers saw their season end last Saturday to Stanford in five sets. Earlier in September, Wisconsin won in five at Texas. And in Big Ten play this season, the Badgers were swept in Madison and lost in five at Minnesota, and in their only match with Nebraska the Badgers got swept at Lincoln.
In the first match Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern, Stanford plays Minnesota.
In the second, scheduled optimistically for 9 p.m., Nebraska plays Texas. Both will be shown on ESPN.
We started with Stanford, which trailed 0-2 at Wisconsin.
“First thing, they locate their serves really well. (Kathryn) Plummer’s serve is really gnarly. It moves, it’s hard, it’s flat, she has a high contact point. (Morgan) Hentz has a really good serve. She moves it around, short, deep, short flat. (Audriana) Fitzmorris has a really good serve, (Jenna) Gray’s got a really good serve. They don’t miss a lot and their balls have a lot of movement.
“We thought going on into the match that would be one of the top two or three serving teams we’d see all year. They don’t let you off the hook with service errors and they put the ball where they want it.”
Stanford only had five aces against Wisconsin, but continually kept the Badgers out of system.
Sheffield had great praise for coach John Dunning with the job he did with so many changes he was forced to deal with.
“What he’s done with this group is really impressive,” Sheffield said. “You see a lot of growth.”
Stanford’s size and athleticism was, of course, a factor.
“Inky (Ajanaku) is so freakin’ ridiculous,” Sheffield said. In that match, Ajanaku had 20 kills, hit .447, and had 11 blocks, two solo. “You knew who was getting the ball and there was nothing we could do. That doesn’t happen very often.
“But the player of the match was (libero) Hentz.”
The freshman had 30 digs, many of them game changers, and her serve receive was outstanding.
“We thought we almost had (freshman outside) Plummer broken,” Sheffield admitted. “She was passing a 1-4 for the first half of the match and she was hitting under .100 for the first half of the match. John changed some match-ups and I’m not sure we put quite as many balls on her as we probably wanted to the second half and her ability to hit about any shot on the court really stresses a defense. I don’t know how many balls the last hour of that match she hit that just landed on the line.”
Plummer had 12 kills and 10 digs in the match.
“You’ve got to be in system against Stanford. If you’re in system, you can score … middles can get in there and do some damage against them if you’re running a quick offense … they play Minnesota and that will play in Minnesota’s favor.
“Minnesota runs its very quick to the pins and they like to go the middles. And when they set the middles off the net that can make it kind of tough. Their middles can score when they’re off the net.”
Sheffield said that Minnesota setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson likes to set quick even when she’s off the net.
“Most people do the exact opposite and she likes to go to the pin when she’s on the net. Stanford is going to have a really tough time when Swenson is on the net setting. That’s going to be really tough on them because their middles aren’t going to be able to get out there at that speed.
“Now, if she sets the ball a lot to middles when she’s off the net that usually gives most teams problems, but that might actually give Stanford less problems because of their length.”’
Sheffield thought again about how tough Stanford serves.
“The whole key to that match is how often is Minnesota in system. If they stay in system, I think they blow out Stanford. If they’re not in system, I can see it being a blowout the other way. Stanford’s block and their tall timber when you’re out of system is really hard to navigate.
“This has really contrasting styles between the two teams.”
Nebraska-Texas is a rematch of last year’s championship match in which the Huskers won in three. They played in the season-opening tournament in August at Oregon and Nebraska won in three again.
“You know what you have there,” Sheffield said. “Texas has a really experienced setter (in Chloe Collins) and terminating pins (in freshman outside Micaya White and junior right side Ebony Nwanebu). And a lot of experienced people around them with a lot of final four experience. They bring more heat from the pins than anybody else who will be playing there …
“White is just so good at the net and so confident. (Senior outside Paulina Prieto Cerame) may be a key for those guys, because her highs are high and her lows are low. And they need her and need her to be playing at an All-American level.”
There’s no doubt that Texas will have to play its best against Nebraska.
“Their passing can give them issues. Going up against Nebraska, I’m not sure it’s a good match-up for Texas because Nebraska is so good defensively. They’re a really good serving team … they can dig and they get really good touches at the net. And it’s hard for pin hitters to hit for a high percentage against them.
“I would expect that Nebraska would win that match and wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in three.”
Nebraska swept Washington to advance and shut down the Huskies’ pins.
“You have to have middles to go up against Nebraska, you’ve got to be able to run slides, you’ve got to be able to run quicks, you’ve got to be balanced,” Sheffield said. “If you’re just going to the pins their block is stable and their backcourt is really good. And they don’t have players who will crack and that’s a big thing. Is there a player we can get on, she might be good for 30 or 40 minutes and if we really turn up the heat on her and put pressure on her for two hours, but Nebraska doesn’t have a player you can do that.
“I like Nebraska’s growth. (Senior outside Andie) Malloy was a real weakness for them early in the year and she’s had some really big matches the past month, month and a half and she’s really helped them out a lot … (Junior setter Kelly) Hunter has really grown as a player. Their ball control is by far the best of the teams in the final four.
“The two semifinals are really strong contrasts in style.”