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The Nebraska volleyball team puts their hands together during the game against Florida State at the Bob Devaney Center on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Nebraska volleyball’s 16 Final Four appearances is second in NCAA history. This is the fifth NCAA semifinal in the last seven years for Nebraska. It is the 10th appearance in 22 seasons for head coach John Cook.

“It never gets old. I can tell you that,” Cook said at Wednesday’s pre-tournament media availability.

This year’s coaching job may be his best yet. He did it with three freshmen on the floor. Of course, that’s not to diminish the seasons of freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez, who was named a first-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association on Wednesday, as well as freshmen outside hitters Lindsay Krause, Ally Batenhorst and Whitney Lauenstein. 

Cook didn’t avoid blame. He said that he didn’t feel that he did a good job of coaching in the non-conference schedule.

“Managing how we were going to come up with a lineup and waiting for [senior middle blocker] Lauren [Stivrins] to come back,” Cook said. “What probably surprised me is how well they handled that and stuck with it, and then believed.”

Not to be forgotten is the adversity and exertion of a four-month volleyball season. The highs, such as Rodriguez’s numerous defensive awards and the Batenhorst 15-kill match at Penn State, along with the lows of benchings and the high-error nights all led to one moment: No. 10 David struck down No. 2 Goliath in Austin, Texas last Saturday night.

Yet Saturday wasn’t the end. There are still goals to achieve. This is certainly the case for Stivrins and fellow senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey as well as senior setter Nicklin Hames. Hames and Stivrins have reached one Final Four in 2018, where the Huskers fell to No. 1 Stanford in five sets. They’re hungry for redemption.

There are numbers across the net too. 

For the No. 3 Pittsburgh Panthers, Thursday night’s match represents a potential to make history. Pittsburgh makes the first Final Four appearance in program history at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

Beyond that milestone, this team is arguably the best in program history. The Panthers are 30-3 and their only losses came against Georgia Tech and undefeated No. 1 Louisville. The first loss to Louisville was as close as it could get. The Panthers fell in five sets and lost the final set 15-13. Pittsburgh is one of three teams to take the Cardinals to five sets.

The roster is stacked. 

There are three attackers for the Panthers with 300 or more kills. Leading the way is senior middle blocker Chinaza Ndee with 372 kills, but close behind is senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh with 351. Member-Meneh was named the most valuable player in the Pittsburgh regional. 

Senior middle blocker Serena Gray is a force in the center of the net with 131 blocks and averages just above one block per set. She also has 256 kills. 

“We plan on doing what we always do, which is hit the ball as hard as we possibly can, as much times as we can,” Pittsburgh head coach Dan Fisher said at Wednesday’s pre-tournament media availability.

The Panthers have weapons everywhere. It’s a far cry from the last time these two teams met in the postseason.

Nebraska is 3-0 all-time against Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament and 12-0 in all other matchups. The last time these programs met in December was the 1990 Regional Semifinal in Lincoln. Today, the Panthers are No. 7 in the country in kills per set and 10th in team hitting percentage at .286.  

The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Rodriguez along with the rest of the hardy Husker back row will have their hands full. Rodriguez will likely eclipse the 500 dig mark during Thursday’s match; she currently has 498 digs.

Dynamic offenses, such as that of the Texas Longhorns, have been ground to a smothering halt by the Nebraska defense. Since losing to No. 4 Wisconsin at the end of November, the Huskers have won five straight matches. During the NCAA Tournament, Nebraska has held its opponents to a .123 hitting percentage, second only to the .095 mark set by Louisville.

“There's a certain level of trust that we talked about a lot that is required in our defensive schemes and in serve receive,” junior outside hitter Madi Kubik said of her back row at Wednesday’s pre-tournament media availability.

Meanwhile, Krause and Batenhorst will need to continue to produce. Krause has 226 kills on the season and a .229 hitting percentage, while Batenhorst has 153 kills and a .170 hitting percentage. Those numbers don’t compare to the fantastic production of the Panther attackers.

Yet the Texas match felt like a breakthrough.

Batenhorst tied Kubik for first on the team in kills with 15 each, and Krause tallied 13 kills. Batenhorst hit .406 while Krause hit .500. Whether it was power, roll shots or tips, it seemed like something clicked for the young pin hitters. 

The fact is, thanks to the defense, Nebraska’s outside hitters don’t have to terminate at the rate of their Panther counterparts. But on Thursday, it wouldn’t hurt if they did.

Now, an opportunity stands in front of the 2021 Huskers. The road has been tough, but they’re here.

“You can’t be a fake team and get here, and especially the route we had to go through,” Cook said. “In my years of coaching, on paper, this was the most difficult path.”

Stivrins, Caffey and Hames get a chance to add yet another number to an ever-growing list of excellence. For the freshmen in Krause, Batenhorst, Rodriguez and Lauenstein, it’s a chance to make their mark in a historic ledger. 

All will be determined starting Thursday night, when the Huskers take the court at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.

“This team is onto something special,” Stivrins said at Wednesday’s pre-tournament media availability. “There’s just a different feel, a different energy with this team. Definitely excited to see what we can do.”

sports@dailynebraskan.com