Resilient Louisville faces No. 2 Texas, Florida returns to Austin to play Minnesota

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Texas regional volleyball 12/12/2019-Louisville-Dani Busboom Kelly
Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly directs Thursday's practice in Austin

AUSTIN, Texas — As an NCAA-championship player and then an assistant coach at Nebraska from 2012 to 2016, Dani Busboom Kelly knows what it’s like to be a member of a team that is expected to win.

Three years into her first head-coaching gig, she’s attempting to bring that same culture to Louisville. So while there might be outsiders who are surprised to see the Cardinals among the last 16 teams standing in the NCAA Tournament, Busboom Kelly, her staff, and the Louisville players gave every indication that they’re decidedly not.

“We talked a lot about that in the first and second round is just winning in our mind first and expecting to be here, and that doesn’t mean we’re arrogant, it just means we’re looking at expectations as positivity,” Busboom Kelly said. “That was a big thing at Nebraska. We expected to be in the second weekend every year, and I’m building this program and our staff is building it to have those similar expectations.”

Louisville finds itself in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament regional here on Friday night — where it will face No. 2 seed Texas — despite being without the talents of its best player and sole senior, Melanie McHenry, for the second half of the season.

Florida plays Minnesota in the other round-of-16 match Friday.

“It was a huge deal,” Busboom Kelly said of losing McHenry to a knee injury. “She was our only senior, captain, she led us in kills, she statistically was honestly our best player in every category.”

And not only this season, but every season since McHenry arrived at Louisville. The Speedway, Indiana, product led the team in kills as a freshman, sophomore, and junior and had already collected 204 kills, 19 aces, 144 digs, and 31 blocks when she suffered the knee injury in the match versus Notre Dame on October 16. 

The Cardinals found a way to beat Notre Dame that day, despite the shock of McHenry’s mid-match injury, but in their next outing, they lost in four to Virginia Tech. A sweep of Virginia proved to be the only bright spot for the team in the next three weeks as it added losses to Pittsburgh, Boston College, and Syracuse.

Eventually, though, Busboom Kelly’s squad started to figure it out.

“When you lose somebody like that, you think about the kills, but that wasn’t even what mattered to our team,” Busboom Kelly said. “We had to adjust to everything else that she did and figure out ways to block balls, dig balls, pass, serve, so it took some adjusting and I’m just really proud that we were able to adjust, and when it mattered, and now we’re here.”

In addition to her tangible contributions to the team, McHenry’s presence on the court also required replacing. 

“She had a really big role in terms of leadership,” said redshirt freshman Aika Jones, the team’s leading scorer. “In tough times we’d look to her because she always knew what to say and she would always put a ball away when we needed a point. So we all had to step up in our own roles to fill that big role that she had.” 

“(Melanie’s) presence was a big deal,” setter Tori Dilfer added. “Obviously physically she helped so much and we’re a very different team without her, but also just her presence was important to us. It led us, it created a sense of comfort on the court. So that was really, really hard at the beginning. But she did a great job of encouraging us, everybody, to take on that role, not just look at one person, not just look at Aiko or Lexi (libero Alexis Hamilton) or somebody that is in a leadership role, but everybody step up and take it upon yourself to do a little bit more for the person next to you.”

Louisville won four of its last six matches of the regular season. Then, taking full advantage of its at-large bid, the team swept Samford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and then got past No. 19 Western Kentucky in five sets in the second round to make the round of 16 for the fifth time in program history and first time since 2005.

That five-set match reinforced the Cardinals’ confidence and belief in themselves. Jones led all players in the WKU match with 20 kills and Louisville out-blocked WKU 16 to seven. Sophomore Claire Chaussee, who took over McHenry’s starting spot on the outside, had 14 kills, while freshman opposite Amber Stivrins, the younger sister of Nebraska middle Lauren Stivrins, contributed 13. Freshman middle Amaya Tillman led the blocking effort with eight block assists and a solo.

“(The WKU match) showed that we didn’t need it to be perfect, we just needed to compete hard and trust and know that we were the better team and we were going to come out on top if we played like it,” Dilfer said. “(We) showed a lot of grit and just showed that we really want to be in this position and we’re here to make a statement.”

Already a young squad, with nine of 16 players on the roster either true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or transfers, Louisville got even more inexperienced after the loss of McHenry. The starting lineup consists of two true freshmen, a redshirt freshman, a sophomore, and two juniors both transfers in their first seasons with the UofL: Dilfer, a transfer from TCU, and middle Anna Stevenson, who came from Auburn. 

Their regional semifinal opponent, Texas, is also quite youthful. The Longhorns’ starting lineup includes just one senior in outside hitter Micaya White, four sophomores (middle Brionne Butler, libero Sydney Peterson, outside Logan Eggleston, and setter Jhenna Gabriel), and two freshmen (middle Asjia O’Neal and opposite Skylar Fields), but their inexperience has hardly slowed them down. Texas has lost just three matches all season, and is the only team in the country to have beaten No. 1 seed Baylor.

Last week, however, Texas got a big scare from UC Santa Barbara. In their second-round match, UCSB went up 2-1 before Texas rallied back to win in five. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as the Longhorns’ 2016 regional semifinals versus BYU when Texas had to fight off two Cougar match points in the fifth set to advance, but the team and its coaching are hoping that the UCSB comeback will provide the same sort of boost the BYU win did in 2016. 

That year, Texas made it all the way to the national championship match, where it lost to Stanford. It’s the last time the Longhorns competed in the final four, after making it to the last weekend of the season eight times between 2008 and 2016 and winning it all in 2012.

“It brought us together, just kind of similar how (the UCSB) game did, just how we’re in this and when we can turn it on it’s dangerous,” White said. 

“It wasn’t that we played poorly against Santa Barbara,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said, “they just played that well and put that much pressure on us for long periods of time and really they caused us to go to a whole different level. So to me that’s a positive when a team learns that they have a whole ’nother gear that they can go to.”

Midway through the UCSB match on Friday night, the Texas coaching staff yanked struggling libero Peterson, replacing her with senior DS Autumn Rounsaville, but Elliott said, Peterson remains the team’s starter.

“I don’t think you lose your spot for having struggled (in one) match,” Elliott explained. “As I tell my players all the time 20 to 30 percent of the time you’re going to have a tough match. I feel good about what she’s been doing in practice this week. I think it’s been a positive and it’s been great to be able to have Autumn be ready to go. That was a big opportunity for her and she stepped up.”

In Louisville, Texas will be facing a tough underdog team, not unlike UCSB. 

“(Louisville is) probably the fastest slide-hitting team that we’ve seen all season long,” Elliott said. “They’re pretty quick to the pins as well, and their opposite can be a handful if she gets really hot. They’ve got good libero play, they’ve got solid setting, and they’ve got a complete team that can play at a high level.”

Meanwhile, Busboom Kelly knows Texas will be a Goliath-type opponent. 

“We know that Texas is going to make great plays and having the mindset to have a next point mentality and know that each point is just a point,” Busboom Kelly said. “You don’t get extra points for bounce blocking or bounce killing balls, which we know they’re going to do. It’s like can we hang in there and make sure we don’t get caught up in emotion and the crowd and everything that comes along with playing at Texas.”

Allie Gregory, left, and Rachael Kramer listen to Florida coach Mary Wise at Thursday’s news conference

The second regional semifinal in Austin features No. 7 seed Minnesota versus 10th-seeded Florida. The two teams played each other earlier in the year, with Minnesota taking a 3-0 victory, but the first thing Florida coach Mary Wise will tell you, and did at Thursday’s press conference, is that her team has changed and grown immensely since that preseason match.

“Maybe one of the most improved teams that I have had the pleasure of coaching from the start of the season to this point,” Wise said. 

The team has felt and acknowledged that growth too. Senior middle Rachael Kramer said the team recently watched the film of that September meeting with Minnesota in order to prepare for Friday’s match, and it was difficult to even recognize themselves. 

“It’s ridiculous just seeing how far we’ve come in our offense, our defense, our serving, all parts,” Kramer said. 

“One of the things that I love about this roster is that we have recognized these things that we need to get better at,” libero Allie Gregory added. “We’ve embraced the failure in the gym all season long to look like a completely different team.” 

Florida brings a 27-4 record into the regional semifinals, having lost just once in the past two months. The Gators’ only losses in SEC play were to No. 9 seed Kentucky

In the NCAA Tournament, Florida won its first first- and second-round matches without kills leader Thayer Hall, who is out with an undisclosed injury.

“She’s still day-to-day,” Wise said of her top offensive player who leads the team with 398 kills. “And even at practice today, we’re hoping that maybe she’ll be able to pass.”

In the last two matches, Wise gave junior Mia Sokolowski the starting nod in Hall’s place. Against Alabama State in the opening round, Sokolowski collected 10 kills, hitting .421, but slowed down considerably against UCF, getting just six kills with four errors to hit .105. 

“I’ve been so impressed with Mia,” Kramer said. “Everyone that comes to the games, you don’t see what happens in practice, and Mia and every single person on our roster has been working the entire season and when your name is called it’s time to step up to the plate and that’s exactly what Mia did this past weekend.”

Florida is playing in Austin for the first time since the 2015 NCAA Tournament regional. That match, a 3-2 loss to Texas, featured perhaps the most infamous botched call in college volleyball history, a call which likely cost Florida the match and led to the implementation of the challenge system the very next season. 

When asked if she had any lingering hard feelings for Austin and Gregory Gymnasium, Wise said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” 

But then she continued, “We may walk out there and take a look at the spot that we think maybe the ball … but I also don’t know the statute of limitations on officiating and how that goes, so I think maybe I’ll just let that go.”

And then after a beat, she added, “I would say though that (for) the CRS system, you are welcome.”

From suffering a sweep at the hands of the Gophers earlier in the season, Florida knows how tough its Friday-night opponent will be. And after going through much of the season without its starting setter, Minnesota has Kylie Miller back in action and appears to be healthy and extremely dangerous. 

Like Texas, though, Minnesota has also had a scare in the tournament. Creighton, the Gophers’ second round opponent, had match-point in the fourth set, only to squander it and allow Minnesota to come back and win in five. 

“(The Creighton match) showed that we have a lot of grit and for the next game we just need to come out more consistent,” said senior outside hitter Alexis Hart, who tied for the team high with 14 kills in the second-round matchup.

“There could be a feeling of like, hey, we’re playing with house money now,” Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “But this team has had some lofty goals the whole time, so I think it probably speaks more to a feeling of, hey, we got into trouble and we got out of trouble—how great that we can do that. Those are lessons that you probably don’t want to have to learn but they’re nice if you can learn them and come out the other side still with the win.”

Miller returned to the lineup for the November 22 five-set loss to Nebraska, but since then the Gophers have won five straight with her at the controls, including a big regular-season finale over Penn State

“It’s been good for us (having Kylie back), no question,” McCutcheon said. “I don’t mean (there was) any problem with our other setters — I credit them with so much because they did a lot to keep us in through the conference season. They did a remarkable job to set the way they set, but I think with Kylie, just a little bit more consistency, a little bit better rhythm. And I thought we were playing pretty well in the preseason, so it’s nice to be able to kind of get back to that.”

As for Minnesota’s analysis of its regional semifinal opponent? Well, they’re good, McCutcheon said. Like everyone still playing at this time of year. 

“Florida is a physically talented team and they’re skilled and well-coached and we’re expecting a battle.”

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