The comeback kids. In the same weekend, two of college volleyball’s most improbable champions met in their respective title games to determine who would move on and represent the nation at the Final Four. After a blowout loss, Nebraska stormed back with five straight victories to make it into its first-ever championship match against Wisconsin. The Cornhuskers lost 3-2 but still had an unforgettable tournament that saw them go from out of contention for NCAA berths all season to national contenders by winning eight matches in a row twice over three weeks despite being considered unseeded entering tourney play.
Nebraska and Wisconsin meet in the NCAA championship as college volleyball VIPs. The two teams met on Friday, April 26th in Lincoln, Nebraska with a final score of 3-1.
8:43 p.m. Eastern
ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel
- Mechelle Voepel is an espnW reporter that covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports. Voepel has been with ESPN since 1996 and has covered women’s basketball since 1984.
THE CITY OF COLUMBUS, OHIO — Kelly Sheffield, the head coach of the Wisconsin volleyball team, can’t help but notice the white banners that hang at Nebraska’s Devaney Center. The banners reflect Nebraska’s five national volleyball titles.
Sheffield said, “We want a white flag.” “We’ve been on the verge of getting together. We were agonizingly near. And I believe that is what motivates everyone: we all want to be a part of that select club where they are unquestionably VIPs.”
Both programs are VIPs in the world of women’s collegiate volleyball. Nebraska and Wisconsin are the most popular teams in the sport, with rabid fans. Many fans have traveled to attend volleyball’s last fight in 2021, when the Huskers and Badgers face off in the NCAA final on ESPN2 at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
It will be the second national championship match this calendar year, since the COVID-19 epidemic forced the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament to move from its traditional December home to the spring this year. In April, Kentucky made history by being the first SEC club to win the championship.
This season’s title, though, will be determined eight months later by two teams that have been here before and represent the Big Ten, one of the two conferences that has mainly ruled this sport at the university level.
The Pac-12 is the other power broker, but for the first time since 2015, no Pac-12 schools reached the final four in volleyball. Since 1998, this is just the third final four without a Pac-12 team. Despite the fact that this was the first final four with two ACC schools, both No. 1 seed Louisville and No. 3 seed Pitt were eliminated in the semifinals.
On paper, the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers and the No. 10 Nebraska Huskers upset each other on Thursday. But, given the depth of experience and quality on both sides, it’s no wonder that they’ve progressed this far. On Saturday, there will be a “red-out” at Nationwide Arena, with Nebraska supporters wearing corncob caps and Wisconsin fans wearing Cheesehead hats.
Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke, who was voted the American Volleyball Coaches Association national player of the year on Friday, said, “We both certainly have two of the greatest facilities in the game, and it’s filled every night.” “Probably two of the most enjoyable places to play. Those fans will be making their way over to this area.
“I believe that’s incredibly unique and a credit to the sport of volleyball and how well-informed both fan communities are.”
Nebraska is playing in its 16th final four and 10th title game. In 2000, Nebraska defeated Wisconsin for their second championship, and current coach John Cook’s first. Cook was in his first season as the Huskers’ head coach at the time, having returned to Nebraska in 1999 after seven years as the head coach at Wisconsin.
Cook had previously worked as an assistant at Nebraska from 1988 to 1990, when he spent the 1999 season preparing to succeed renowned coach Terry Pettit, who stepped down after the season. Cook felt he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to Nebraska.
Despite finishing a flawless 2000 season 34-0 with a 3-2 triumph against the Badgers in the NCAA championship, Cook was primarily relieved that the pain of seeing his old club was ended. Many of the Badgers’ players were recruited by him, and he recalls none of them speaking to him during the 2000 final four.
Cook’s next three wins, in 2006, 2015, and 2017, were more enjoyable for him: two were won in Omaha, Nebraska, about an hour’s drive from the Huskers’ campus in Lincoln, while the third was won in Kansas City, about three hours away. However, Nebraska volleyball enthusiasts travel from all around the state, and the volleyball team is the pride of the state.
“I have a thing for Nebraska volleyball, and I have a thing for this squad,” Cook said.
The Badgers have reached the last four five times, including the last three seasons. Rettke, together with fellow fifth-year seniors Sydney Hilley and Lauren Barnes, reached the NCAA final two years ago, falling in straight sets to Stanford, and the semifinals last season to Texas.
Last season, the Badgers were 18-0 and the No. 1 overall seed, but they were swept by the Longhorns. Because of the pandemic-related universal eligibility exemption imposed last season for all athletes, a program icon like Rettke has been given a fifth year and another shot.
The same can be said about Nebraska middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, who was a member of the 2017 national championship squad. She redshirted in 2016 and is now in her sixth season at Nebraska.
Lauren Stivrins is in her sixth year at Nebraska and is attempting to win her second championship with the Huskers. Paul Vernon/AP Photo
On Saturday, either Stivrins or Rettke will win their second championship, while volleyball should be a great final match. Despite the fact that the Badgers defeated the Huskers twice during the regular season, both teams are peaking at the right moment.
Of course, success contributes to the popularity of both programs in their own communities, but it doesn’t explain everything.
Cook, who was the head coach at both Lincoln and Madison, described both places as “college towns.” “These incredible female student-athletes may be seen by young females. However, there is also an older group who began when no one else was going, since I still see the same folks I saw when I was coaching [at Wisconsin]. And, of course, I still see the same folks that came to our games when I was an assistant at Nebraska.”
Sheffield said Nebraska was one of the first institutions to show what could be done with the rise in popularity of college volleyball, a development that his Badgers have aided. It was evident in Wisconsin’s five-set thriller over Louisville on Thursday.
Sheffield described the sport as “unbelievable.” “And I don’t believe there’s anything more engaging than that when it’s performed at the top level.” I believe [Thursday] night’s match was one of the most exciting you’ll ever watch.
“I wouldn’t be astonished if tomorrow night’s volleyball match isn’t the most watched in history.”