The last 29 feet of Mount Everest are known as one of the hardest climbs in the world despite the relatively short altitude change. The defining slogan for the 2019 Husker volleyball was finishing that last 29 feet, inspired from the 2018 national championship loss.
The slogan carried throughout the season, but the toughest part of the climb was being swept twice by Wisconsin. Other than those losses, Nebraska did its job and got awarded the two seed but were placed in the Wisconsin region.
In the final stop before the Final Four, Nebraska needed to slay the Badger. The match was a defensive slugfest, which is exactly what Nebraska wanted to do but the Badgers did not back down.
“I thought that was a really, really gritty performance by us.” Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield said. “You can start panicking but there wasn’t any of that stuff from our group.”
Junior outside hitter Jazz Sweet, wearing No. 7 because she forgot her usual long sleeve No. 12 jersey, went up to attempt her 12th kill and potentially keep the final set alive for the Huskers. Nebraska was down 24-19 and on its last stand but no mercy was shown by the Badgers.
Wisconsin’s junior outside hitter Molly Haggerty and junior middle blocker Dana Rettke stuffed Sweet’s attempt, winning the set 25-19 and the match 3-0. Wisconsin advanced to its third ever Final Four while Nebraska failed to make it for the first time since 2014.
The 2019 Huskers had something working against them that the four previous teams did not have; lots of youth and no seniors. A lack of experience had created a quick and tough learning curve for Nebraska that hit them hard throughout October.
Sophomore outside hitter Capri Davis took an indefinite leave of absence but that would not be the hardest news that month. Graduate manager Dane LeClair passed away the morning after a road match against Purdue, something even the veteran Cook had not experienced yet.
“We wanted to play with the joy that Dane had,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said. “It was always an inspiration for us.”
The Huskers grew stronger, getting the No. 5 seed, but happened to be in the Madison region, meaning one more match against the Badgers. Unlike the last two matches, this third match would be for a Final Four appearance and not just a win mark.
Nebraska and Wisconsin were locked in from the beginning as both worked hard for each kill. The first set would set the tone for what the rest of the match would become: a war.
Rettke was held to zero kills in the first set while junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had one kill in that set. The middle blockers were gameplanned out of the match so both teams had to form a reliance on the outside hitters.
Sweet led Nebraska with five kills and zero attack errors in the first set yet the Husker offense struggled against the Badgers block. Nebraska had seven attack errors but unlike the first two matches, Nebraska’s defense forced six attack errors.
The hyper defensive focused first set also led to more weight on serving. Good serving leads to a better block and for the Badgers, they had five serving aces while Nebraska had none. The serving difference gave Wisconsin a 25-19 win.
Serving has been one of the few weaknesses in Nebraska this season and for sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller, she had five reception errors in that set. The direct struggles of Miller forced the reliable passer to be benched.
“She [Miller] wasn’t handling her emotions very well,” Cook said. “We got Hayley in there and then I just knew she would calm down.”
Miller’s early struggles put junior defensive specialist Hayley Densberger into the match. No liability in the back row ended Nebraska’s rut against the serve and immensely helped the second set.
The second set was a throwback to the match back in Lincoln. Both offenses started to roll through the first half of the set. Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun had no attack errors and five kills while Sweet continued her hot start with six kills.
“Definitely just trusting my training,” Sweet said. “That was part of our game plan going into playing Wisconsin because it’s a really big block so you gotta go high.”
On Wisconsin’s side, Rettke returned to form with five kills while Haggerty had six kills as well. Despite the Badgers two top offensive players hitting well, Nebraska had several blocks from Sweet and Stivrins that gave the Huskers a 16-12 lead.
After that, the cracks began to form on Nebraska. A quick three point run cut the lead to one point and suddenly the set was tied at 17 apiece. Similar to previous sets, Nebraska and Wisconsin began exchanging points but the Badgers block rose back up.
Nebraska had five attack errors after the match was tied at 17 and a total of eight errors. Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik’s kill tied the match at 22 but three consecutive attack errors ended the second set, with two coming from Kubik.
Down 2-0 again to the Badgers, Nebraska’s offense needed to create some plays. The Huskers had 25 kills and 15 hitting errors through the first two sets and just a bit more clean offensive play could give Nebraska its first set win against Wisconsin.
“I thought our defensive players were making really good reads,” Wisconsin senior libero Tiffany Clark said. “Those are the best games to be apart of because its all defense.”
Instead, Nebraska ended the season on an offensive whimper. The Huskers had 12 errors and only 10 kills while the Badgers only hit .149.
The Badgers struggles on offense were seen by a much improved backrow play from Miller and freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles. Knuckles had 22 digs this match, more digs than she had in the two previous matches.
A much improved Knuckles gave Nebraska a fighting chance and Wisconsin got on a three point run to tie the match at 18 apiece.
Like the second set, the third set saw Wisconsin plays it best volleyball at the end. The Badgers went on a soul crushing 7-1 run to end Nebraska’s season and get their first Final Four appearance since 2013.
“Going into the third set, I said, ''Guys, this is going to go the red zone and I want it to,” junior setter Sydney Hilley said. “It’s so fun to be in those moments and I’m so confident in our team in those moments.”
Experience was something the Badgers had, having seven players that are at least a junior that could be rotated constantly in and out. Nebraska had two freshman and two sophomore starters to settle the difference.
Even with the obvious age differences, Nebraska set Wisconsin to a hitting percentage season low at .149. The Huskers went 0-9 in sets against the Badgers but Nebraska fought to the last point and never gave up despite the roller coaster of a year.
“I just think about everything that this team went through this year,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said. “It’s just been amazing to play on this team.”