Thursday, Dec. 14, started out on a high note for Nebraska volleyball head coach John Cook. It only got better from there.
He was inducted into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Thursday morning, just before the Huskers took on Penn State in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament semifinals that night.
No. 5-seeded Nebraska took the court against the top-seeded Nittany Lions at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, on Thursday night. It was the Huskers’ third consecutive appearance in the NCAA semifinals.
Penn State had just one loss during the 2017 regular season. That loss came at the hands of Nebraska, which swept PSU at home, the first team to do so since 2003.
At the end of Thursday night, Penn State had been handed its second loss of the 2017 season, also from Nebraska. By a score of 3-2, No. 5 Nebraska upset No. 1 Penn State to move onto the NCAA Volleyball Tournament final.
Set 1: No. 5 Nebraska 25, No. 1 Penn State 18
The match started off on a good note for the Huskers. A kill from NU junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke gave the Huskers the first point in the match.
From there, Nebraska took control of the first set for awhile. While PSU managed to tie it up a few times, the first time the Nittany Lions took a lead was when the score hit 9-8 after a kill from Penn State senior outside hitter Simone Lee.
From there, Penn State widened the lead. The Huskers struggled to control to ball, allowing PSU to take an 11-9 lead over the Huskers, which prompted Cook to call for a timeout.
The Huskers were struggling to apply pressure against Penn State serves, and it seems Cook likely mentioned that to his team during the timeout.
After the break, the Huskers took control of the court, a service error by Penn State immediately following the timeout launched NU on a scoring streak. Nebraska posted five unanswered points, taking a 13-11 lead in the first set.
The Huskers widened their lead to 15-12, forcing No. 1 Penn State head coach Russ Rose to take a timeout. PSU’s timeout didn’t work as well as the Huskers’ did, with the Nittany Lions still allowing two more points for NU immediately after the break in play.
The Huskers took control of the set at that point, widening their lead until a service error from Penn State put the Huskers up 23-18. A service ace from junior libero Kenzie Maloney gave NU set point and a kill from senior middle blocker Briana Holman handed the Huskers a 25-18 victory in the first set of the match.
Holman was the bright spot for Nebraska in the opening set. The transfer from LSU posted five kills on six attempts, a .833 hitting percentage in the first set.
Set 2: No. 5 Nebraska 23, No. 1 Penn State 25
Penn State took a 4-0 lead to kick off the second set. The Huskers responded with two points, but PSU didn’t allow Nebraska to gain any momentum. A series of kills from the Nittany Lions widened the gap until Penn State held a commanding 6-2 lead.
The Huskers managed to take advantage of a series of attack errors from Penn State, tying the set up at 7-7. But NU experienced struggles of its own at that point. Several issues with ball control allowed PSU to take a 12-9 lead over Nebraska.
After an attack error from senior outside hitter Annika Albrecht left NU trailing 13-9, Cook called another timeout.
The Huskers seemed more calm after the break. Kills from Stivrins, Foecke and Albrecht and a block by Holman allowed Nebraska to narrow its gap to a 15-16 deficit.
PSU responded with one point, but freshman outside hitter Jazz Sweet posted a kill, narrowing the Nittany Lions’ lead to 17-16.
A kill from Albrecht and a set of blocks from Hunter and Stivrins gave Nebraska a 19-18 lead, forcing a Penn State timeout.
Following that break in play, the Huskers didn’t break stride and an attack error from PSU’s Ali Frantti widened the Huskers’ lead to 20-18. The Nittany Lions managed to gain some momentum at that point, tying the set up at 20-20. The teams traded points until the second set was tied 23-23.
A kill from Lee gave Penn State a set point and the Huskers took another timeout.
Following the timeout, PSU picked up a point off an attack error by Holman. The Nittany Lions took the second set 25-32 and both teams headed to the locker rooms at halftime with the match tied at one set apiece.
Set 3: No. 5 Nebraska 24, No. 1 Penn State 26
To start the third set, Foecke’s 10th and 11th kills of the night gave the Huskers a 2-0 lead, but
the Nittany Lions quickly responded off a Nebraska attack error, and two kills by Lee gave PSU a 3-2 lead in the set. Penn State senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington posted a kill of her own, and another kill from Lee forced a Nebraska timeout as the Huskers trailed 5-2.
A kill by Holman narrowed Penn State’s lead to 5-3, but a series of ball handling errors and missed opportunities by Nebraska gave PSU the momentum it was looking for as the Nittany Lions widened their lead to 10-4.
At that point, something seemed to click for the Huskers. One kill by Holman, three consecutive kills by Sweet and a PSU attack error brought the Huskers within one point of their opponent, trailing Penn State 10-9.
The Huskers had momentum on their side.
Several errors from PSU and some solid kills from Nebraska gave the Huskers a 12-11 lead in the third set.
The two teams traded points until Nebraska’s momentum picked up again. The Huskers went on a run to take a 15-13 lead, prompting Penn State to call a timeout.
Coming out of the timeout, an attack error from Frantti gave the Huskers a 16-13 lead. But Frantti followed up her error with a kill, bringing the score to 16-14 in the third set.
The two teams traded points, and a kill from Sweet forced another Penn State timeout with the Huskers leading 20-16.
PSU posted one kill but followed that up with its 11th service error of the night, leaving the Huskers up 21-17.
Penn State narrowed Nebraska’s lead to 22-21, forcing another timeout by the Huskers.
After the timeout, a service error put NU up 23-21 in the third set. Nebraska returned the favor with a service error by Albrecht, and a block against the Huskers tied the set up at 23 points apiece.
From there, the teams swapped points and the score remained tied at 24-24, guaranteeing the set would go into extra points.
PSU picked up two points off a kill and a Nebraska attack error, giving the Nittany Lions a 26-24 win in the third set.
Set 4: No. 5 Nebraska 28, No. 1 Penn State 26
A kill by Frantti and several attack errors by NU put Penn State up 4-0 to start the fourth set, with PSU leading the match 2-1.
The Huskers continued to be plagued by ball handling issues and the Huskers took their first timeout of the set, trailing 6-1. Coming out of the huddle, Holman posted a kill, bringing the set’s score to 6-2.
From there the teams traded serves and the Huskers managed to narrow the Nittany Lions’ lead to 13-10.
Stivrins and Holman posted one kill apiece, and sophomore setter Hunter Atherton posted two consecutive service aces to take a 14-13 lead.
Nebraska used its considerable momentum to continue its run, forcing a PSU timeout after an attack error by Washington left the Nittany Lions trailing 16-14.
A kill by Lee after the break narrowed the gap to a 16-15 Husker lead, but Foecke’s 15th kill of the night brought Nebraska back to a 17-15 lead.
Foecke followed up her kill with an ace serve, and coupled with a kill by Sweet, the Huskers found themselves leading in the fourth set 19-15. Now facing a four-point deficit, the Nittany Lions took another timeout to regroup.
After the break, a wide hit by Sweet gave PSU one point, bringing the score to 19-16. Sweet came right back after the error, posting a kill and giving the Huskers a 20-16 lead.
The two teams traded kills, moving the score to 21-17. A big block from Penn State senior right side hitter Heidi Thelen and a kill by Frantti narrowed the score gap to 21-19, and the Huskers took another timeout as their lead was cut to two points.
Penn State continued its momentum after the break, narrowing the score to 22-21. A kill by Foecke brought the Huskers lead back to two points, until Frantti posted a kill for the Nittany Lions, bringing the score to 23-22.
A kill by Foecke gave the Huskers a 24-22 set point and soon after ,a Nebraska service error and a PSU kill tied the set up 24-24. The two teams picked up one point apiece, keeping the score tied at 25-25.
PSU picked up a match point after an attack error by Albrecht gave Penn State a 26-25 lead, but NU responded with two kills of its own, gaining a 27-26 lead. A final kill by Stivrins gave the Huskers a 28-26 win in the set. The two teams heading to a fifth set tied at two sets apiece.
Set 5: No. 5 Nebraska 15, No. 1 Penn State
After giving the Huskers the win in the fourth set, Stivrins started the fifth off strong as well, as she gave Nebraska the early 1-0 lead.
From there, the two teams traded points until PSU managed to pick up two in a row, giving the Nittany Lions a 5-3 lead in the fifth set.
The two teams continued to trade serves, and a kill by Holman and a PSU service error left the teams tied 6-6.
Nebraska took advantage of the opportunity, and Maloney posted another service ace. Shortly after, Albrecht pounded down another kill and the teams swapped sides on the court with NU leading 8-6 in the final set.
Stivrins came through for Nebraska at that point. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman posted a solid block, giving the Huskers a 9-6 lead and forcing a Penn State timeout.
PSU picked up two points after the break, but a kill by Sweet kept the Huskers up with a 10-8 lead.
A big block from Stivrins gave NU an 11-8 lead, prompting the Nittany Lions to take their second timeout of the set.
After the timeout, a kill from Albrecht extended the Huskers’ lead to 12-8. Penn State managed to pick up one point off a service error before another Albrecht kill gave the Huskers a 13-9 lead.
Washington came through for PSU with a kill from the net, bring the score to 13-10.
Another kill by Foecke gave Nebraska match point with a 14-10 lead in the fifth set.
After a service error gave Penn State one more point, Nebraska took the set, and the match, with a 15-11 win in the fifth set. The Huskers’ 3-2 upset over No. 1 Penn State was Nebraska’s ticket to the NCAA Volleyball Tournament final.
After the match, Cook had nothing but praise for his players.
“This team never ceases to amaze me with how resilient they are, how much fight they have and how hard they work together,” Cook said.
The match was a tense one. Heading into the fifth set, the match was tied 2-2 with a shot at a national title was on the line. But despite the close game, after the match Albrecht said she was confident in her team’s ability.
“[We just needed to] reset and refocus,” Albrecht said. “I told our [defensive specialists] to just be there, and I’m just going to take rips. There was nothing to lose in this game, Penn State was supposed to beat us.”
The Huskers were competing in front of a crowd largely comprised of Nebraska fans. With Kansas City just a three-hour drive away, many Husker fans made the trip to see the team compete. Foecke said the environment was helpful for the team.
“Obviously, the crowd is a big, important part of us,” Foecke said. “We did a great job of coming together as a team.”
At the end of the night, Cook praised his team’s performance and wrapped up his comments with a show of confidence in his players.
“No matter what happens Saturday, this team will go down as a legendary team in the chronicles of Nebraska volleyball,” Cook said.
That matchup is set for 8 p.m. CST this Saturday, Dec. 16. The Huskers will compete for a national title against No. 2-seeded Florida. The Gators defeated Stanford 3-2 in their semifinal match on Thursday night.
The competition for the 2017 NCAA Volleyball Championship will air live on ESPN2.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 11:54 p.m. CST on Thursday, Dec. 14, to identify Florida as Nebraska's championship match opponent after UF defeated Stanford to advance in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.