Asked for a big-picture view of his team’s eighth NCAA championship, Stanford volleyball coach Kevin Hambly was at a loss for words. “I’m too tired,” he said, “to think about what this means.”
Hambly knew it would take some time to fully appreciate the exhausting, exhilarating match he had just witnessed Saturday night. The top-seeded Cardinal beat Nebraska 3-2 at Target Center, prevailing in a back-and-forth, 2½-hour thriller that broke the Huskers’ hearts and an NCAA record. With the 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 victory, Stanford now has more NCAA women’s volleyball titles than any other team, breaking a tie with Penn State.
The nation’s top-ranked team at the beginning and end of the season, Stanford won its final 32 matches, the longest win streak in program history. The Cardinal finished 34-1, while seventh-seeded Nebraska ended 29-7.
Stanford libero Morgan Hentz, with 28 digs, and outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, with 19 kills and 10 digs, shared the most outstanding player award. Nebraska outside hitter Mikaela Foecke finished her college career with a bravura performance, with a match-high 27 kills on .296 hitting, plus 11 digs and two blocks.
The Cornhuskers, the defending champions, clawed back from a poor third set to dominate the Cardinal in the fourth. Stanford got the final punch, though, as two Nebraska serving errors and one Huskers blocking error in the fifth set helped the Cardinal win.
“It was an all-out battle,” Nebraska senior Kenzie Maloney said. “I thought both teams played really well. I really felt like we had the win, and we didn’t.”
The match featured the two most successful teams in NCAA tournament history. Stanford has won 124 tournament matches, the most ever, and Nebraska is second with 113. The two schools also are 1-2 in Final Four appearances; Stanford made the field for the 22nd time, and Nebraska was at its 16th Final Four.
Nebraska outhit Stanford .271-.250 and had 73 kills to the Cardinal’s 64. Stanford had 11.5 blocks to the Huskers’ nine.
“I don’t know that I’ve been part of a match that was more interesting, more hard-fought,” a hoarse-voiced Hambly said. “We have a lot of respect for [Nebraska], how hard they play, how they defend and how they scrap. We knew we had to match that from the beginning.
“That was the difference in the sets that we won and the sets that they won. I’m really proud of our young women for the turnaround after the fourth [set] and staying together. It could have been easy for us to fracture.”
Though the hometown Gophers were not there after losing in the regional semifinals, Nebraska fans traveled en masse to give Target Center a home-court feel. The crowd was announced at 18,113, a sellout, and it was a roaring sea of Huskers red.
Plummer was off her game early in the title match, as Nebraska sprinted to a quick lead. The Cardinal stormed back to go ahead 19-18 and won the set after the Huskers fended off three set points to tie it at 24.
The teams swapped the lead in the second set until Nebraska went on a 5-1 spurt, capped by two Foecke blasts. Stanford was able to climb within two points, but a Cardinal net violation gave the set to Nebraska, 25-22. Foecke had eight kills in the set, including three of the Huskers’ final four points.
In the third set, Stanford got five blocks and rolled to a big early lead that held up. Nebraska committed several costly errors to contribute to seven consecutive Stanford points. But they turned things around completely in the fourth set. Behind six kills from Lauren Stivrins, the Huskers raced to a 9-1 lead and led the set the entire way.
Nebraska held a 3-1 lead in the fifth set before Stanford scored four in a row. The Huskers were able to tie the score but never took the lead.
“Going into the fifth set, we said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to lay it all out there, give it everything we have,” Stanford’s Hentz said. “It took us a while to get there. Nebraska kept coming back. They put up an amazing fight, but we were able to fight back.”