Just two teams played three of the four teams in the national semifinals.
Iowa lost to Stanford in the preseason and then twice each to Penn State and Nebraska.
Illinois also lost early to Stanford, then to Nebraska in their only Big Ten meeting, and twice to Penn State. But first-year Illinois coach Chris Tamas was for the past three years a Nebraska assistant.
So we went to Iowa’s Bond Shymansky, who couldn’t help himself with this prediction ahead of Thursday’s NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship when there’s a Big Ten rematch between Nebraska and Penn State before Stanford of the Pac-12 plays Florida of the SEC:
“I guarantee there will be a Big Ten team in the final,” Shymansky said.
Actually, he picked an outcome, which we’ll get to later.
Iowa got swept by Stanford on August 26 at Long Beach State. The Cardinal under former Illinois coach Kevin Hambly, was without 6-foot-8 senior right side Merete Lutz.
“Admittedly they were a man down when we played them early in the season,” Shymansky said. “And the following week they played Penn State and were a little bit banged up.
“They’re really outstanding from a block and defense and ball-control standpoint. Everybody talks about how big they are, how tall they are and how physical they are, but I think is what makes them most impressive is how clean and how crafty they are with the ball considering their size.
“A lot of times people think it’s going to be just brute force, but they’re really a highly skilled, low-error type of team. They play really steady because of it.”
“Kudos to Kevin for not messing it up yet. He’s really managed to keep a great chemistry and kept the consistency going and I think they’re in great shape right now.”
Shymansky also praised the versatility of the Stanford players, especially the way the front liners can play different positions.
“That can hit from either pin, they can hit middle, there’s a lot they can do and not really a lot they can’t do.”
Stanford lost to Penn State twice, once with Lutz on the shelf and once with her back.
Iowa lost to Nebraska in early October and then again to end the regular season.
Penn State, of course, sustained its only loss when Nebraska swept the Nittany Lions at State College to open the Big Ten season September 22.
“Penn State is obviously hungry to play them again,” Shymansky said. “It’s been so long since the beginning of Big Ten season. Nebraska is probably one of the best defensive transition teams that makes sure they get a swing out of a dig.
“Oddly enough, everyone thought they would miss so much when the Rolfzen twins graduated, but the X factor for them is (senior outside) Annika Albrecht. They have all of these other super-stud superstars, but when she plays well and she plays steady, they win. She might be playing at the lowest height, she might be the least impressive in hitting warmup, but I really think she’s the linchpin for them to being able to compete and win.
“Nebraska serves very well and knows how to get a lot of pressure on an opponent and get them out of system and score.”
Iowa lost to Penn State in late September and early November.
“Simone Lee is really good and so is Haleigh Washington, that’s a really big one-two punch, and they’ve gotten more and more comfortable in their 6-2 offense. The thing that I see in terms of the matchup that could be really interesting is if they utilize Lee and even (Ali) Frantti out of the back row more.
“Early in the season they were setting Lee on the pipe a lot and backed off of it. Then they went a little faster and I think that’s an Achilles’ heel for Nebraska. I don’t think they block and defend the bigs very well or the regular pipe and it’s something that Lee can hit really well. When you run a 6-2 you always have a backside option and you add a back-row option on it, it adds a lot of pressure to a blocking scheme setup for Nebraska.
“Passing can be suspect at times for Penn State and Lee and Frantti have to hold their own. For as well as Nebraska can serve that can be the difference. But I think it’s going to be a great, great match.”
And who wins?
“My prediction is that Stanford makes their way back there,” Shymansky said, anticipating a another match with Penn State in the final. “And Penn State beat Stanford twice this year, right? It’s hard to beat anybody three times.”