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Penn State Nittany Lions

No Minnesota, but a lot of history and outside hitters galore at NCAA final four in Minneapolis

Courtesy Illinois

Illinois will get its first crack at Big Ten rival and defending champion Nebraska at the final four.

There could have been a hometown favorite in the NCAA women’s volleyball final four this week, but the biggest upset of the tournament prevented that. And Minnesota’s heartbreak turned into Nebraska’s good fortune.

Now the seventh-seeded Huskers will try to become the third program to win three titles in four years. Stanford did it in 1994, ’95 and ’97, and Penn State won four in a row from 2007-10. The Huskers also become as much of a home-court favorite as possible, since Nebraska is the closest of the final four schools — the others are No. 1 seed Stanford, No. 3 Illinois and No. 4 BYU — to the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. That’s where the semifinals will take place Thursday and the final on Saturday.

It’s about a 6½-hour drive north from Lincoln, Nebraska, and if you know Huskers fans, you know a lot of them will be there. They took over Kansas City’s Sprint Center (3½ hours south of Lincoln) last year as the Huskers won their fifth NCAA title.

“Having such a young team and so many new players, it can be hard to establish a culture,” said Mikaela Foecke, one of the Huskers’ senior leaders and a two-time most outstanding player at the final four. “We’ve worked really hard on our bonds on and off the court, and I think that’s showing now on the court.”

Three times, volleyball’s final four has been in Omaha, less than an hour from Nebraska’s campus. The Huskers have made it there each time, winning titles twice. But Nebraska coach John Cook always talked about the extra pressure in seasons when the final four was nearby, and that’s what Minnesota dealt with this season.

That burden, a dangerous Oregon offense and a draining 41-39 loss in the second set combined to upset the second-seeded Gophers in Friday’s Sweet 16 at Minnesota. Nebraska then took advantage of what became a neutral court in the regional final, sweeping the 15th-seeded Ducks and advancing to the final four for the fourth consecutive year, a program first. In all, it’s Nebraska’s 15th trip to the national semifinals.

While the Big Ten champion Gophers didn’t get there, league representatives Nebraska and Illinois did. The Huskers and Illini met twice in the regular season, with each winning 3-1 on the other’s home court.

The final four was in Minneapolis one other time — 1988 — and Illinois made it then, too. Thirty years later, the Illini make a fourth trip to the national semifinals, and first since 2011. The Illini lost to UCLA in the 2011 NCAA final, and setter Jordyn Poulter recalls watching that match as a high school freshman in Colorado. Her final college choices came down to Illinois and UCLA, and she picked the Illini. Now as a senior, she’s leading them to the national semifinals.

“It’s been awesome for the community,” Poulter said of the Illini’s success. “People don’t hold back in coming up and telling us how fun it’s been this season.”

The fans in Provo, Utah, weren’t holding back either. On Saturday they provided an electric atmosphere in watching BYU beat Texas in the regional final. The Cougars previously made the national semifinals in 1993 and the NCAA final in 2014, when they fell to Penn State.

No female coach has won the NCAA volleyball title dating back to the tournament’s beginning in 1981. But there’s a chance for BYU coach Heather Olmstead to make history this year.

First, though, BYU would have to beat seven-time NCAA champion Stanford in the semis. The good news for the Cougars is they’ve already done that once this season: They gave the Cardinal their only loss on Aug. 31, in Provo, 3-2. Both Stanford and BYU have just one loss; for the Cougars that was in their regular-season finale at Loyola Marymount on Nov. 20.

“I think we’ve learned and grown tremendously from that,” BYU setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich said. “We learned a lot about our serving and passing, and it was good for us to get those lessons.”

Stanford is in the national semifinals for the 22nd time, and the third year in a row. The Cardinal are led by outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, last season’s AVCA and espnW player of the year and part of a junior class that won the NCAA title as freshmen two years ago. Last season, they were upset in the national semifinals by Florida in five sets. Stanford coach Kevin Hambly is in his second season with the Cardinal, and could have to face his former team, Illinois, in the final.

Stanford is trying to become the first No. 1 seed to win the volleyball title since 2009, when Penn State did it. The Cardinal had to face the Nittany Lions in the regional final Saturday, and that matchup had not gone Stanford’s way in the NCAA tournament in a long time. They had not defeated Penn State in the postseason since 1997, going 0-5.

The Cardinal were in trouble Saturday, too, losing the first set and trailing the Nittany Lions in the second. But Stanford turned the match around, winning 3-1, and now will try to become the leader in NCAA volleyball titles; Penn State also has seven.

Plummer led the way in Stanford’s victory with 23 kills. She’ll be one of the best outside hitters — among a group of outstanding outside hitters — at the final four, along with Nebraska’s Foecke, BYU’s Roni Jones-Perry and Illinois’ Jacqueline Quade.

The hometown team won’t be there, but plenty of star power will.

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