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Huskers, Panthers Set for Semifinal Rematch at Volleyball Final Four

by Dec 14, 2023Nebraska Volleyball

Huskers preparing for Panthers
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

TAMPA, Fla. — For four Husker juniors, this week marks the second trip to the Final Four. For everyone else, most notably the team’s four starting freshmen, it’s a new experience.

The regional weekend brings extra media attention and responsibilities, but that ramps up another couple of notches for the Final Four weekend with all the interviews, photo shoots and everything else that accompanies a trip to the national semifinals.

“We front-loaded them on Sunday, what the atmosphere would be like, because until you’ve been through it, you have no idea,” Coach John Cook said. “This is even now times two from two years ago when we were here. We front-loaded them so they would be aware of it and they’re doing a great job of handling it.”

Lexi Rodriguez said the Volleyball Day in Nebraska stadium match way back in August prepared the Huskers for what they found in Tampa on Wednesday. Nebraska is looking to balance enjoying the moment while focusing on the ultimate goal.

“I would say for sure we’re just making sure we take it all in, making sure we’re not taking any of it for granted and enjoying the experience,” Merritt Beason said. “When it’s time to lock in for practice and games, we’ll lock in. But we definitely don’t want to look back on this experience and regret not taking it all in. That’s been a key topic amongst our team, just making sure that we’re enjoying the moment and being grateful for the opportunity to be here. And then we’ll lock in when we need to be locked in as well.”

The Huskers apparently did just that during their 90-minute open practice at Amalia Arena on Wednesday, which saw a couple hundred fans show up to watch the Huskers at work. Cook apparently told his team afterward something he’s never said before.

“We had a good practice today,” Bergen Reilly said. “It’s a huge arena, and obviously, we’re getting that depth perception down. Coach said this was one of the best pre-Final Four practices he’s ever seen, so we’re locked in. We’ve got it all figured out. Just hoping to get better every day.”

Cook said he thinks his team is in a great place from a preparation and mentality standpoint to play well on Thursday.

“I’m not worried and I just think these guys live for these moments,” Cook said. “Some teams shy away from these moments. These guys live for these moments.”

The next moment will feature a talented opponent in No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, a team that runs a similar system to what Nebraska runs, according to Cook.

“Their volleyball team is very athletic,” Cook said. “They’re very well coached. This is their third Final Four in a row. Coach [Dan] Fisher has figured a way to get that team there. They’ve rebuilt through the transfer portal, he has two fabulous freshmen and he’s been able to recruit the whole country. They’re playing at a really high level. Statistically, they’re one of the top teams in all categories. It’s not just one or two, they’re up there everywhere. They’ve done a great job and it’s going to be a great challenge.”

Nebraska is leading the country in opponent hitting percentage at .134. Pittsburgh is second at .138, setting the stage for a classic defensive slugfest — or maybe not.

“I think both teams have made a commitment to that being a strength of theirs,” Cook said. “Both teams are really well coached and really well prepared. And they’re disciplined teams. So defense, a lot of it is being prepared and having a great mindset of what we want to do. And obviously both teams are at the top in the country in that. That means probably both teams will hit .400 tomorrow night.”

A good offensive night for one or both teams wouldn’t necessarily be shocking; they’re both top-20 offensive teams as well. Pitt is third at .308 while Nebraska is 18th at .279. Additionally, Pitt is second nationally in blocks (2.97 per set).

Pittsburgh matched Nebraska with two first-team AVCA All-Americans in setter Rachel Fairbanks (9.32 assists per set) and opposite hitter Olivia Babcock (3.61 kills per set, .311 hitting, .044 aces per set, 1.04 blocks per set), the AVCA Freshman of the Year. Freshman outside hitter Torrey Stafford (3.26 kills per set on .279 hitting) also earned third-team All-America honors. Middle blocker Emma Monks (1.82 kills per set on .403 hitting, 1.57 blocks per set) and libero Emmy Klika (3.05 digs per set) were honorable mention selections for the loaded Panther squad.

The Huskers and Panthers last faced off in the 2021 National Semifinals, a 3-1 win for Nebraska. Three of Pitt’s starters — Fairbanks, middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo and outside hitter Valeria Vaquez Gomez — played in that 2021 Final Four match, compared to two healthy Husker starters for Nebraska (Lindsay Krause would make it three). Both teams look quite a bit different from the last time they met.

However, one of the Nebraska newcomers is very familiar with the Panthers’ head coach and setter. Merritt Beason played for Fisher and alongside Fairbanks with the United States team at the U21 Pan American Cup in 2022. That team won gold and Beason earned MVP honors. Beason’s Florida team also lost to Pitt tin the regional semifinals of last year’s NCAA Tournament.

“I loved playing for Coach Dan,” Beason said. “He was one of the few coaches that I could instantly click with in a very short amount of time. That was really, really cool. He was very good about building relationships and being very personable, even in a very short amount of time. That stood out a lot about him. And he pushed us and I loved playing for him. And Rachel, she’s one of a kind. She’s hilarious and a great person and I absolutely loved playing with her. They’re both great people. Rachel’s obviously a great setter. So I’m excited to see them again and to be able to play them and kind of get another rematch like last year and kind of have another chance at that.

“But, like Coach said, they’re a great team. They’re going to challenge us and push us. We have to be ready for that. I think it will be a really good match. We are very similar in a lot of ways in the style of how we play. So I think it will be a fun match.”

First serve is set for 7 p.m. ET (6 p.m. CT) on ESPN. The second semifinal featuring No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 2 Texas will follow 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first match.

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