TAMPA, Fla. — Only two setters have ever led a team to a national title as a true freshman starter. On Sunday, a new member will join that exclusive club.
Both Nebraska and Texas feature first-year setters, and both boast top-20 offenses despite their youth at that position. Bergen Reilly is averaging 10.64 assists and 2.65 digs per set for the Huskers while Ella Swindle is putting up 9.61 assists and 1.98 digs per set for the Longhorns.
“I’ve been coaching 23 years at Nebraska, and Bergen is only the second freshman setter to start,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “Nicklin [Hames] was the first one. Nicklin, her freshman year, we got to the finals against Stanford. So I don’t know, that’s probably a good indicator that freshmen are becoming more ready to play. I talked about that yesterday or the day before that club volleyball is doing a great job of preparing these kids. Those coaches have gotten better, and there’s more players across the country, and the competition for them is great.”
Their class and success aren’t the only thing tying them together. Reilly and Swindle have become friends through their time shared in the USA Volleyball training gym. Swindle said they were roommates one year.
“I’ve gotten to know her,” Swindle said. “She’s a nice girl, and I’m excited to play against her. She’s definitely a great competitor, great player. It will be fun to have two freshmen setters going against each other. So, yeah, super excited.”
Reilly echoed those sentiments and said she’s looking forward to the test Texas will present for them.
The standout from Sioux Falls O’Gorman won the setting job during the offseason and looked like a season vet from the jump, leading the Huskers to three wins over ranked teams (including one at Stanford) as part of an unbeaten nonconference that saw the Huskers hit .282, a year after a more veteran Nebraska squad hit .244.
“The biggest change coming into college, I would just say, is the speed of the game,” Reilly said. “Coming from club and high school, it’s a whole different game into college. That was a big adjustment to make, especially as a setter. But it went pretty seamless, and everyone around me kind of helped me to adjust.”
Reilly went on to guide Nebraska to 27 straight wins to open the season, a 33-1 overall record heading into Sunday and an outright Big Ten title. She is the first freshman to earn Big Ten Setter of the Year since the award’s inception in 2012 (picking up four Big Ten Setter of the Week and two Big Ten Freshman of the week awards along the way) and she also earned a spot on the All-Big Ten First Team, the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and the AVCA Region Team. The AVCA named her a second-team All-American on Wednesday.
On Sunday, the Huskers will play for a national championship with Reilly leading the way.
“The gift Bergen has, if I’m going to correct her on something, she’ll already tell me what I’m going to say,” Cook said. “She just has a great feel. We don’t really give her a lot because I want her — she’s a feel setter. Kelly Hunter was that way too. Where Nicklin was, we kind of had to program her more. The great feel setters — just like Patrick Mahomes, he doesn’t do everything that he was trained as a kid growing up. He just creates and does things. Those guys have great feel. That’s Bergen’s greatest gift. That, and she’s a great competitor.”
Stretching back to her high school days and time with various USA national teams, Reilly has developed a reputation for keeping a level head at all times and performing well under pressure. During Friday’s press conference, she admitted to feeling some nerves leading up to Thursday’s semifinal against Pitt, but those feelings quickly washed away.
“There were a little, just kind of realizing the circumstances,” Reilly said. “But I really didn’t let myself get too nervous because I knew I had full confidence in this team, and we were very prepared and very well prepared for the game we had last night and just kind of trusting myself and trusting all my teammates. So I think it was just kind of the circumstances. There were nerves that come with that, but nothing too crazy.”
The starting setter position at Nebraska carries plenty of pressure, but Swindle stepped into a completely different environment in Austin. The Longhorns went 28-1 a season ago and captured the national title, with senior setter Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres leaving big shoes to fill. Swindle stepped into those shoes from day one at Texas.
“I still remember the conversations Ella and I had early on; there’s a lot of pressure coming in as a quarterback to set a team that just won a National Championship,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “You feel all the responsibility. For me, I was trying to tone that down with Ella and tell her she was going to fail a lot and we were going to catch her, and she wasn’t going to be perfect every night, so setting the expectations where she could just grow.”
The preseason No. 1 Longhorns got off to a slow start, dropping their season-opener to Long Beach State in four sets. Texas went 5-3 overall in nonconference play. Elliott said he didn’t want to overwhelm Swindle early on, so they gradually built her up and expanded their offense to feature different kinds of sets as the season played out. Elliott called it putting building blocks in place to make sure she felt confident in everything they were doing.
“You can’t throw that on a freshman the first two, three weeks of the season,” Elliott said. “David [Hunt], who has been running our offense, does a tremendous job with her in terms of building those blocks, and you could see him talking to her a lot about some of that stuff, and we’re able to talk through it. I think where Ella has developed, I think it was the second game or fourth game, there was a ball, and she’s running forward and she sets this long back slide to Asjia [O’Neal]. That takes a lot of obviously skill, but it also takes a lot of guts in critical situations. So that tells me where she is confidence-wise in terms of running our offense.”
Swindle said consistency is where she’s grown the most throughout the season. Since the start of October, the Longhorns have hit .304. They haven’t dipped below .241 during that 19-match streak and are hitting .301 in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think over the course of the season I’ve just become a more consistent player,” Swindle said. “There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, and things have definitely been rocky throughout the season. Asjia and Madi [Skinner] and all the coaches on staff just help me be at peace on the court. I give it my best. Whatever happens is going to happen, and everyone has my back. That gives me a lot of freedom to just go out and play and play the sport that I love, and that’s how I’ve become a more consistent player throughout the year.”
Swindle is the only freshman in Texas’s starting lineup. Nebraska is another story as three of Reilly’s classmates also earned starting jobs for the Huskers — emphasis on “earn” according to Bekka Allick, a freshman starter herself a year ago.
“I think they earned their spot, for sure,” Allick said. “If anything I would encourage them to want that attitude. The last thing I want is for people to be recruited for their heart and their skill and to feel they need to step down simply because of their youth. I think that is one of the biggest lies we get told as an athlete is because ‘Oh, you haven’t been around as long as me, you don’t deserve my spot.’ The game doesn’t know how old you are. That’s the one thing we’ve been teaching all season.
“I want them to come in here and act like they own it. That’s exactly what we needed, and they did that and they’ve been proving that over and over. I didn’t think they were cocky, but I would ask that more freshmen would do that and ask that of themselves, to not shy away from a senior simply because they’re a senior.”
Veterans like Merritt Beason, Lexi Rodriguez, Madisen Skinner and Asjia O’Neal are the big names heading into Sunday’s championship, but freshmen will factor heavily into who lifts the trophy at the end — most notably a pair of friendly setters going head-to-head, just like they have in the USA training gym so many times before.