TAMPA,, Fla. — After four long months of fierce competition, the field has been whittled down to two as No. 1 seed Nebraska and No. 2 seed Texas will face off Sunday for the national championship.
The two former conference foes will renew their rivalry as they gear up to face off in the title match for the third time. The current score is 2-0 Nebraska, though what the Longhorns accomplished in taking out No. 1 seed Wisconsin in four sets Thursday night certainly turned some heads.
Bright Lights, Big Stage
For the first time, the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship will take place on a Sunday, with a non-cable channel broadcasting the game. ESPN has pushed the match into an afternoon slot on ABC, giving an even larger group of fans access to the game.
For the head coaches of both teams, that’s a big deal.
“This is probably the biggest moment we’ve ever had,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “For ABC to see where the sport is growing, to pick it up on football Sunday is pretty special. Hopefully there’s some marketing behind that to be able to make that happen. I think people are going to be surfing through the channels, and when they see Texas-Nebraska on with 21,000 people in the crowd, it’s going to be super exciting.
“It’s one of the building blocks to get this sport to the next level. It’s exciting because women’s sports in general are growing left and right. I’m a proponent, not just for volleyball, but for women’s basketball and really getting people comfortable with seeing these incredible athletes.”
Elliott said he’s in a text group with friends who have been talking up his players, marveling at their skill and athleticism and asking him about how they compare to some all-time greats. He’s hoping to see fans at home set a new viewership record for Sunday’s match.
Viewership and attendance records are old hat for the Huskers at this point. Nebraska’s matches have been putting up huge numbers all season, most notably the world record-setting Volleyball Day in Nebraska.
“The stadium match, we blew that thing out of the water as far as making an impact,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “This is another thing following up, which is great. You and I probably can remember Wide World of Sports every Sunday night. I don’t even know if these guys even know what ABC is. So that puts it in perspective right there. For me, being on ABC, that’s watching Wide World of Sports, watching Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, those guys. ABC was the sports channel that you’d always watch for big-time sports. So to me it’s a big deal, but our players probably have no clue what ABC is.”
Merritt Beason said the players definitely know what ABC is, even if they aren’t turning in regularly.
“I think it’s huge, and obviously, like Coach said, it’s a really big deal for the sport just to be put on this stage and have so much attention around it,” Lexi Rodriguez said. “It’s ultimately going to grow it in the upcoming years. You can see from everything this year, from all the attendance records and media records, that it’s growing in the right direction. So I think this is definitely a really huge step to keep it growing.”
“We’re just getting started…”
— Hail Varsity (@HailVarsity) December 16, 2023
One reporter asked a simple question to each of the players and coaches that sat in front of a microphone during Friday’s press conferences: in one word, what would winning the championship on Sunday mean to you? Here are their responses.
Bergen Reilly: “Historic.”
Asjia O’Neal: “Legendary.”
Madisen Skinner: “Incredible.”
Ella Swindle: “Everything.”
Swindle also elaborated on her answer.
“It’s not everything because I have my foundation outside of volleyball, but it just is everything because this is what you worked for and dream of as a kid,” She said. “So to me it’s everything in volleyball.”
Bekka’s Block Party
As a freshman, Bekka Allick played alongside arguably the best blocker in the country in Kaitlyn Hord. Hord’s departure left a big hole in the Huskers’ defense, one that Allick was happy to step into as a sophomore.
The 6-foot-4 Lincoln native is seventh in the country in blocks per set at 1.51 and is playing some of the best defensive volleyball of her Husker career on the biggest stage. She posted a career-high 12 blocks in the regional final win over Arkansas, then nearly matched it with 10 stuffs against Pitt on Thursday, three of which were solo. Dating back to the regular season finale at Minnesota (another 10-block performance), Allick has averaged 2.59 blocks per set over her last five matches.
“I think it’s improved a lot,” Allick said of her blocking. “It’s been a lot of film and just breaking things down, like ‘How much can I get better?’ I think the hardest thing of when you are on a win streak is you’re wondering if you can do much better, because you never know when you’re going to meet somebody that can take that away from you.
“The biggest thing is what are the great ones doing? So I would watch a lot of USA men’s volleyball and I’m trying to figure out what are they doing right? At this point, we have people hitting high and hard and being really creative. They have to constantly change their game. The same thing goes for the middles that Jaylen [Reyes] chooses for us to watch in film. I’m like, ‘OK, why is he choosing these women in particular? What are they doing that I need to learn from?’ It’s just been a lot of asking questions and allowing myself just to take in whatever he has to offer from film.”
Allick named Maxwell Holt, Foluke Akinradewo and Haleigh Washington as players she enjoys watching film on and learning from to improve her blocking technique.
Allick will get a chance to learn from another talented player in the moment on Sunday when she lines up across the net from Texas middle blocker Asjia O’Neal. The 6-foot-3 senior is second in the country in blocking at 1.59 per set while adding 1.93 kills per set on .404 hitting.
“I think she’s got great composure,” Allick said of O’Neal. “She continually has that fire, which we heard about last night against Wisconsin. I think that was great. She’s been in the game for a while and she’s going to have a very long and successful career. Jordan Larson has said great things of her after playing at USA. She’s a very admirable athlete and, from what I’ve heard, a great woman. My biggest takeaway just from watching her is her composure and she knows what to do in big moments.”
A Special Moment
After the final point on Thursday night, after the Huskers celebrated their victory as a team (twice) on the court, our terrific photographer John Peterson captured a special moment between two Huskers.
Reilly and Kennedi Orr, the team’s two setters, embraced by the corner of the court. Peterson’s shot shows a look of unbridled joy on Orr’s face in particular.
Orr has gone through so much to get to this point. We’re talking about a former No. 1 recruit in the country who suffered a serious knee injury during her senior year of high school and spent her first spring on campus rehabbing. Following her recovery, she played in a couple matches during the first weekend of the 2021 season before sitting and learning behind Nicklin Hames the rest of the year.
Cook spent the 2022 summer telling reporters that he was handing the keys to the Nebraska offense to Orr as Hames planned to play in a defensive specialist role during her extra season of eligibility, but that lasted all of one weekend before Cook switched to a 6-2 primarily featuring Hames and walk-on Anni Evans as the setters. Orr popped in and out of the lineup throughout the season but never settled in to a defined role, nor did she look like the player she was prior to the injury when she was on the court.
Reilly, the top-ranked setter in her own class who arrived in Lincoln with plenty of fanfare and Team USA experience, joined the program in January of 2022, and Cook said the two setters would battle it out throughout the offseason for the starting job. Cook split reps throughout the offseason, but the freshman beat out the junior, leaving Orr on the bench once again.
With a redshirt still available to Reilly set to start for the next four years, the Minnesota native could have shut it down for the season and looked for another program where she’d have a clearer path to extended playing time. That would have been perfectly understandable; competitive athletes want to be on the floor and they only four have years to do so.
She took another path, however, cracking the lineup mid-year as a serving substitution. That role can often include just one or two points per set, but when games get tight, any points she can provide could play a significant role in the outcome. She’s played in 28 matches this season and totaled seven aces and 37 digs.
Two of those digs came in Thursday’s win over Pitt, coming on the same rally (the second a one-handed stab at the ball) and leading to a Husker point.
Reilly and Orr both said during the preseason how close the two had grown despite competing for the same job. That moment revealed the truth of those words, and shows what this team means to Orr.
Her career likely hasn’t played out at all like she envisioned when she committed to Nebraska, but those thoughts didn’t enter her mind in the moments after the final point against Pitt. She celebrated alongside all of her teammates, and on Sunday she’ll have a chance to become a champion.