MINNEAPOLIS — As the NCAA volleyball tournament field has been halved and halved again, Callie Schwarzenbach has been designated the keeper of the count.
Friday morning, as Nebraska began its final practice of the 2018 season, the freshman middle blocker gave her last update to the team. The number of NCAA volleyball teams still practicing was down to two.
And in a year when it seemed a new crop of final four hopefuls might finally break through and give the sport a first-time champion for the first time since 2005, the two teams emerging to play for the national title are familiar faces. Stanford and Nebraska — blue bloods of the sport who have won a combined 12 NCAA titles including the last three, and reached the national title match a total of 25 times.
“I just know I think both programs have high expectations,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “When players go to those schools, they know what they’re in for. So there’s tradition at both those schools. Probably the cultures are a lot different from Stanford and Nebraska. I know parking and going out to eat is a lot cheaper in Lincoln than in Palo Alto. But yeah, I mean, Stanford is one of the premier programs in volleyball.”
Who says preseason predictions are meaningless? Stanford occupied the No. 1 spot in the first coaches poll with Nebraska No. 2. But the two teams’ seasons quickly diverged, only to intersect once again in Saturday’s 8 p.m. championship match.
No. 1 Stanford (33-1) swallowed a defeat on the season’s second weekend and haven’t tasted it again, avenging its lone loss by crushing No. 4 BYU 25-15, 25-15, 25-18 in Thursday’s first national semifinal to stretch the Cardinal’s winning streak to 31 matches.
Three starters who stand 6-foot-4 or taller make Stanford the tallest team in the country. That includes 6-6 junior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, the Cardinal’s leading attacker who on Friday was named the national player of the year for the second year in a row.
Stanford’s size presents a formidable obstacle for opposing attackers. The Cardinal lead the nation in blocks at 3.45 per set with 6-2 Tami Alade, their explosive senior middle blocker, putting up an NCAA-best 1.88 blocks per set.
Stanford’s quick dismissal of BYU on Thursday was a blocking master class. The Cardinal turned back 17 shots in three sets with Alade having a hand in 14 of the stuffs.
“I think the only way that we can get that many blocks in a three-set match is first with our serve, we’re able to set up, because they couldn’t run their fast offense that they wanted to,” Plummer said. “Then our middles are just doing a really good job of getting low and over, which we work on every single day in practice.”
When you face an opposing block like that, Nebraska outside hitter Lexi Sun said it’s important to not fall into the trap of trying to hit the perfect shot around or over the block. BYU compounded its offensive problems with a slew of hitting errors in an effort to evade Stanford’s blockers.
A season of physical Big Ten opponents, plus regular practice drills in which the Huskers hit against their male practice managers, create scenarios like ones Nebraska (29-6) will run into Saturday. NU will need to direct shots off the Stanford blockers and pass serves well enough to let freshman setter Nicklin Hames keep the offense unpredictable instead of having to force balls from well off the net into a waiting double block.
“I really just trust my hitters with the work that we do every day,” Hames said. “We work against the boys every day. I feel like it’s going to be pretty similar for them. But yeah, you want to spread the offense around and move people around so that we’re not predictable.”
The nation’s top-ranked team is the final obstacle in Nebraska’s path to what would be a surprising sixth NCAA championship, but a title that would be all the sweeter because of the circuitous route. The Huskers dropped five out of seven matches during an October stretch, but rebounded to win 13 straight matches to reach the final four for the fourth consecutive year.
The winning streak saw its biggest threat on Thursday night after Illinois took the first two sets before Nebraska rallied behind 19 kills apiece from Sun and outside hitter Mikaela Foecke to put the Huskers in the national final for the ninth time.
“Obviously there was a stretch there in the beginning or middle of the Big Ten that we had some ups and downs,” Sun said. “But I think it’s paid off for us. I definitely think we learned from that and I don’t think we would’ve been able to win any of these close matches that we’re playing now if it weren’t for those games.”
Nebraska and Stanford have circled each other on the season’s final weekend for the last two years. In 2016, Texas’ 3-0 sweep of Nebraska in the national semifinals prevented the Huskers and Cardinals from meeting for the title, won by Stanford. Last year, the teams seemed on pace again to play for the championship, but Florida upset the Cardinal in the semifinals. NU then defeated the Gators for the program’s fifth NCAA title.
Finally, Nebraska and Stanford are again across the net from each other, meeting in the final four for the fifth time, but the first since the Huskers beat the Cardinal in Omaha to win the 2006 title.
Two teams left with one match to decide which of college volleyball’s royalty will wear the crown in 2018.
“Obviously Stanford is a great program,” Nebraska libero Kenzie Maloney said. “They have a lot of great players, can terminate balls just as well as we can. It will be a really great match.”