Nebraska volleyball wasn’t supposed to be here, at least according to the court of public opinion.
The Huskers started three freshmen. First it was a daunting battle at No. 2 Texas, immediately followed by a date with No. 3 Pittsburgh in the Final Four.
Nebraska is still standing.
“We talked all week that no one expected us or believed that we could be at this point right now,” senior setter Nicklin Hames said postgame. “That we would be playing for a national championship.”
In a match that began Thursday night and stretched into Friday morning, the Huskers proved those who doubted them wrong. Nebraska advanced to the National Championship game against the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers with a 3-1 victory over No. 3 Pittsburgh.
The Panthers’ power was on full display in the first set. Pittsburgh took an early 5-1 lead slamming balls to the floor and forcing Nebraska into poor passing situations. But, the Huskers worked their way back in with two tenacious aces and a block from senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins to tie it 7-7.
The Panthers roared back to win seven of the next eight points and claimed a Nebraska timeout. An emphatic block by senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey and freshman outside hitter Lindsay Krause cut the Pittsburgh lead to three at 16-13 and capped a 4-0 Husker run. Pittsburgh responded well and won nine of the next 12 points, taking the first set 25-16.
“I thought Pittsburgh came out and just was unbelievable the first game,” Nebraska volleyball head coach John Cook said postgame. “Their tempo, everything they were doing, it was perfect volleyball for several points. So I was a little worried that it could be a fast night.”
Nebraska hit just .167 in the first set to the Panthers’ .483. Surprisingly, the Huskers were also out-dug 14-9. Leading the way for Nebraska was junior outside hitter Madi Kubik with four kills. For Pittsburgh, four attackers had three or more kills including senior outside hitter Leketo Member-Meneh and senior middle blocker Chinaza Ndee.
It was all Pittsburgh, and chants of “Let’s go Pitt” echoed without retort from the Husker faithful in attendance at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
It appeared in the second set that Nebraska found its answer. The Huskers took an early 3-1 lead helped by a Panther service error and a pair of Husker blocks. That recipe for success led to a 18-11 Nebraska lead as the Huskers served, blocked and killed their way to a seven point advantage.
After consecutive kills from Pittsburgh, Nebraska called timeout leading 23-17. The Huskers capitalized winning the last two points earning a 25-17 victory. The service line was unkind to the Panthers, with five errors in the set. Nebraska dominated at the net, stuffing four Pittsburgh swings.
Kubik said the Huskers had a focus on the block from the start but honed in as the match went on.
“We kind of settled in a little more and talked about breaking fingers,” Kubik said postgame. “So that was the goal. Not actually breaking them, but kind of.”
Tied 1-1 in the match, it was “Husker Power” that reverberated throughout the arena.
In the pivotal third set, service errors continued to plague the Panthers. Pittsburgh had three in the first 20 rallies, including an error that tied the set at 10-10. Blow for blow they went, until a service ace from Stivrins gave Nebraska the lead 19-18 in response to a 3-0 Panther run. A kill from Caffey forced another Pittsburgh timeout, and the Huskers held on to win the third 25-20.
Stivrins said she felt the whole team “flowing.”
“When you're in that kind of state of mind you just don't really have much going on up here,” Stivrins said postgame. “It just kind of happens.”
Nebraska held the Panthers to a stifling .061 hitting percentage in the set.
“Pitt has a good offense when they're in system and it's really fast and it's hard to stop,” Hames said. “I thought we started thumping our serves a little more, getting them out of system, and then we could kind of know where the ball was going.”
Thursday became Friday and the fourth set began.
The Huskers started fast in the fourth, building a 9-5 lead as Pittsburgh called timeout. Time and time again the Panthers sliced into the Nebraska lead. Yet, each time, the Huskers would recover. Whether it was Pittsburgh service errors or timely kills from freshman outside hitter Ally Batenhorst or Krause it seemed Nebraska always had the answer.
Until it didn’t. A 3-0 run from Pittsburgh cut the advantage to one at 18-17. Just five rallies later it was tied 20-20. Krause and Stivrins combined for a thunderous Husker block as the freshman Krause displayed her passion with fiery flair. That sparked the Huskers and it was a block by Stivrins that ended it, as the Huskers won the decisive fourth 25-20.
The Husker freshmen put on a show. Krause finished with nine kills and three blocks, Batenhorst had seven kills and freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez tied with Hames for the team lead in digs with 13. Cook said he had a talk with that group prior to the start of the tournament. In his eyes, they weren’t freshmen anymore.
“They've been through the wars,” Cook said. “The Big Ten really prepared them for what we are seeing in this tournament, and those guys compete, and they've stepped up and made some really big plays.”
After a win like Nebraska claimed over Pittsburgh, the Huskers have confidence.
“I feel like we've really hit our stride at the right time,” Hames said. “We just have this belief and we're out there playing, as we say, with one heart, which I think is really special.”
For the third time this season, Nebraska advances to play No. 4 Wisconsin. This time, with the NCAA Championship on the line Saturday night. The Badgers defeated the Huskers twice in the regular season. It was just one part of a Big Ten crucible that tested Nebraska’s mettle.
“We could have packed it in — we lost three out of four matches I think at one point in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “And so they've stayed with it and they kept believing and kept getting better. That's really hard to do for 10 weeks.”
Now Stivrins, the only remaining Husker from the 2017 National Championship squad, gets to lead her teammates into battle for one last tilt with Wisconsin. She will be joined by Hames who played in the 2018 title game and has felt the up and down nature of this season.
“I think it's prepared us for those big moments and we're playing great in those big moments,” Hames said. “It's not always pretty, but it's our way and we get it done and we have each other's backs and I just love playing with this team so much. I think that's the most special part about it.”
Once for fun, once for the Big Ten title, now for the championship.