KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Nebraska’s plane touched down at University Park Airport in late September, a safe landing did little to quell John Cook’s feeling that the wheels were maybe about ready to fall off his volleyball team.
The week before, the Huskers had lost their third match of the nonconference season, to Northern Iowa, and later that night, the team saw starting middle blocker Briana Holman leave a match against UNO with an ankle injury.
The NU coach could envision a dark future for the team in which a pummeling at Penn State, then undefeated at 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country, could set the Huskers on a course that would leave them fighting just to make the NCAA tournament.
Instead, Nebraska’s stunning sweep of the Nittany Lions was the type of course correction beyond most teams’ wildest dreams — the first time Penn State had been swept at home since 2003 — and provided a substantiation of the lessons Cook had hoped the Huskers would take from the prior humbling weekend.
“Obviously for this team that was a huge, significant win,” Cook said Wednesday, “maybe as big as you can get in the Big Ten Conference, to validate everything we’ve been training and working on.”
Even though Nebraska (30-4) has won six straight matches against Penn State, the Nittany Lions remain Cook’s litmus test, a standard PSU coach Russ Rose’s program has held since Cook was Wisconsin’s coach in the 1990s.
“Every decision we make in recruiting, how we train, what systems we’re going to run — can we beat Penn State?” Cook said. “So they’ve been the measuring stick for us on how we build our program.”
That September win remains No. 5 seed Nebraska’s signature victory, setting the Huskers on the track to win a second straight Big Ten title and make program history by reaching a third consecutive final four. It remains the only loss of the year for Penn State (33-1), which will take a 23-match winning streak into the rematch Thursday at 6 p.m. in the NCAA semifinals at Sprint Center (ESPN).
“I just think ever since I’ve been here and I’ve been old enough to understand Nebraska volleyball, that’s been a great match to watch,” NU senior setter Kelly Hunter said. “I know my time here, we’ve had some great matches against them, and I think (Thursday) will be another great matchup.”
Hunter has been the architect of Nebraska’s current winning streak in the series. The Huskers have never lost to the Nittany Lions when the Papillion-La Vista South product has been the setter, including three wins over Penn State a year ago capped by a five-set comeback victory in the regional semifinals in Lincoln.
That match was another series classic after the Nittany Lions took the first two sets and held two match points in Game 3. Nebraska erased the second match point by blocking Penn State All-American Simone Lee, who said the Nittany Lions can’t carry the baggage of previous losses into the final four.
“I don’t know if frustrating is the right word. Every opponent is a good opponent, and every opponent is going to play their best against us,” said Lee, the 2017 Big Ten player of the year. “It’s something that we’ve just got to be more prepared for. As much as we want to win those last matches, we can’t look to the past. It’s about the game that’s going to happen (Thursday), and how we prepare for it for the rest of the week.”
The September win showed the Huskers just how potent their attack could be. NU hit .347 in University Park, which remains the season high for a Penn State opponent, led by a career-high 19 kills from Annika Albrecht. Holman played despite the ankle injury and put down 13 kills on .750 hitting.
“We’re really balanced and we have a lot of weapons on front row and back row, and it’s hard to defend teams like that,” Holman said. “I think they have a hard time defending us sometimes because usually some of the teams that they play they might have one or two good players, when they know that they’re really good. But they really have to wait and read on us because we have so many offensive weapons.”
The Nittany Lions took plenty away from the September loss, outside hitter Ali Frantti said. Nebraska’s serving forced some poor first contacts, and Penn State didn’t thrive when out of system. The Nittany Lions’ .227 hitting percentage that night was the season low for the NCAA’s top hitting team.
But Penn State hasn’t lost since, ending the regular season with back-to-back road wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota to earn a share of the Big Ten title. The Nittany Lions have hit .328 over their four NCAA tournament wins.
“I think our chemistry is great right now,” Frantti said. “It’s going to be fun to play Nebraska again. I think we’re going to have to be relaxed when we come out and we need to be strong.”
There’s no secret about what Penn State will throw at the Huskers, Cook said. The Nittany Lions have ridden their big three of Lee, Frantti and All-America middle Haleigh Washington for the better part of four years. All have 1,000 career kills and are known to Nebraska players by name, leaving no head scratching at the scouting report.
The familiarity breeds respect, Cook said. Nebraska-Penn State is volleyball’s appointment viewing. The cheers are a little louder, the kills land a little harder and everything feels bigger.
Throw in a near-sold-out Sprint Center and a trip on the line to Saturday’s national championship match, and it brings to Cook’s mind a word few other coaches would use to describe playing Penn State.
“We love playing Penn State,” he said. “We’ve had great matches with them, and this will be on a big stage.
“We’ve been able to figure out how to beat them, and we’re going to have to go in and play a great match to do that. It’s going to be two pretty motivated teams. They have their strengths, we have our strengths.”
Nebraska vs. Penn State
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM
Penn State coach focuses on his team
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Every coach at Wednesday’s press conference was asked about their national semifinal opponent. It was mostly smooth sailing until Penn State’s Russ Rose was asked about the Nittany Lions’ Thursday rematch with fellow Big Ten school Nebraska.
When the two teams played Sept. 22 in University Park, the Huskers handed the Nittany Lions their only loss of the season. It wasn’t just any old loss.
It was the first time Penn State had lost 3-0 at home since 2003 and also was Nebraska’s sixth consecutive victory over Penn State. The Huskers’ 59 kills were the most in a three-set match since the NCAA switched to 25-point sets beginning in 2008.
Rose used to be an assistant with the Nebraska program.
“I don’t spend all my time worrying or talking about Nebraska,” Rose said. “You guys cover Nebraska, so it’s more appropriate that that’s the center of your attention. We lost the first match in the Big Ten schedule and won the next 19 and have the same Big Ten championship banner hanging if we were to hang a banner like that.”
Rose said Penn State didn’t have its best match in that September meeting.
“Nebraska played very well in the match, and we didn’t play as well as we would have liked, but I think the players really pointed out (that) you’ve got to move on,” Rose said. “When Nebraska lost to Wisconsin, I’m not, we’re not celebrating because they lost to Wisconsin because I’m coaching Penn State.”
The next question Rose fielded wasn’t about Nebraska — it was about how he thought his team improved over the last half of the season — but he continued to talk about the Huskers.
“We played Nebraska in a final four before,” Rose said. “I think our record has been fine in the final four against Nebraska. We had a great match many years ago in Omaha that a lot of people like to talk about. But that match doesn’t have any bearing on this match.
“We’ll have to be ready to play because Nebraska does a great job in preparing their team.”
Florida an experienced newbie
Florida is making its first volleyball final four appearance since losing in the 2003 championship match, while the other three teams in the field have won the three most recent national titles — Penn State in 2014, Nebraska in 2015 and Stanford last year.
Don’t think for a moment that the 29-1 Gators are going to take the court at the Sprint Center feeling intimidated. Second-team All-America outside hitter Carli Snyder said she and her teammates have had the goal of going to Kansas City all season.
“All along this team has had huge goals, and we weren’t afraid of saying (it) early in this season,” Snyder said. “Last January when we started working for this moment that this is where we wanted to be this weekend.
“So all along this has been something that we’ve talked about openly and wanting to work all season for this weekend right here that we’re at right now.”
The Gators were eliminated in regional finals in 2014 and 2015 before losing in the second round last season.
“We know we’ve been to the elite eight twice and lost in the elite eight twice,” Gators libero Caroline Knop said. “(We’ve been) figuring out what it is we have to do and how we go about it. Like losing last year in the second round was something that sparked us.”
Cardinal pair back at home
The final four is a homecoming for a pair of Stanford sophomores.
Setter Jenna Gray and 6-foot-6 middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris are from Shawnee, Kansas, and Overland Park, Kansas, respectively. They’re looking forward to playing in one, and possibly two, matches before family and friends.
But they also had finals to prepare for and take since they arrived in Kansas City.
“We landed on Monday night, got back to the hotel, started studying for my final,” Gray said. “Took a final Tuesday morning, went to practice, went to dinner, came back, started studying for another final, took a final this morning, and then came here.”
Fitzmorris said she had been keeping the same schedule with the same finals. Both Kansans are taking the same classes.
With the finals completed, Fitzmorris said she and her teammates are focused on defending their national title, starting with Thursday’s 8 p.m. match against Florida.
“Now we’re just really excited to be looking forward to our next match and what we can do to prepare,” Fitzmorris said.