TAMPA, Fla. — “Serve and pass.”
Ask John Cook the key to victory for any match and that will be the first thing he says. It was the first thing Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said on Friday as well. It’s a bit of a coaching cliché.
There’s a reason clichés become so over-used, though. There’s usually a lot of truth in them. On Sunday afternoon, the final match of the 2023 season truly did come down to Texas’s serving and Nebraska’s passing, and nothing else really mattered.
The Longhorns served the Huskers off the court and rolled to a 25-22, 25-14, 25-11 sweep at Amalie Arena to claim their second straight NCAA Volleyball Championship and fourth overall.
Texas finished with 12 aces, a Nebraska opponent record during the rally-scoring era, and that figure doesn’t even come close to describing the difference between the two teams in terms of serving and serve receive. Nebraska only mustered two aces. Five different Huskers had reception errors, including one of the best passers in the country in Lexi Rodriguez. Nothing Nebraska tried seemed to work.
“Texas played great,” Cook said. “They had a level of serving we haven’t seen all year, and it really impacted us and our momentum and our confidence. And then everything just started going their way. They got all the momentum and we could never get it back. So great job by them, great job by their players.”
The first-contact struggles prevented Nebraska from getting into any kind of rhythm offensively. The Huskers hit .013, totaling just 20 kills and 19 errors. Harper Murray led the way with seven kills. The middle blockers combined for seven kills but also four errors, and the other pins (Merritt Beason, Ally Batenhorst and a brief appearance from Hayden Kubik) combined for five kills and 10 errors.
“Volleyball is a hard game when you don’t have any rhythm,” Cook said. “And we had no rhythm passing. Then you lose your confidence, setters lose their confidence, everybody is pressing, you try to hit the ball harder. We were out of system the whole time. It’s a downward spiral from there. It’s really hard to get it back once you lose it.”
Texas hit .264 and nearly doubled Nebraska in kills. Tournament Most Outstanding Player Madisen Skinner put on a show with 16 kills on .273 hitting and two aces, routinely hitting over the top of Nebraska’s block and finding the floor.
The Longhorns finished 28-4, though they nearly didn’t make it out of the Madison Regional. Texas faced match point against Tennessee in the regional semifinals but rallied to win in five, taking the last two sets 26-24 and 16-14. Cook compared that to similar comebacks Nebraska made in two national championship seasons, 2000 and 2017.
“You think you’re invincible,” Cook said. “You think it’s destiny, it’s ours, and I think Texas experienced that. And I watched that match, they shouldn’t have won it. Tennessee should have won that match … Sometimes you go through those matches that give you that whatever extra thing is, like, ‘Hey, doesn’t matter what happened, we’re not losing.’ And we’ve had some of those.
“But we’ve been playing really well. We played one of our best matches of the year in the semis, which is great for this group on this big of a stage, but I think that was the difference-maker for Texas.”
Texas jumped out to a 4-0 lead to start the match with a pair of kills from Skinner and a pair of errors from Beason, but the Cornhuskers settled into tie it at 6-6. Nebraska took its first lead at 10-9 as Murray ended an extended rally with a tip, then Murray took a big rip on the next point to put the Huskers up by two.
Texas responded with a 3-0 run to jump back in front, then later used a 5-1 spurt to open up a 19-15 lead. Texas led 22-19 when things started to unravel a bit as Bekka Allick and Murray teamed up to block Asjia O’Neal. Elliott unloaded on an official after previously receiving a yellow card, leading to a red and a free point for Nebraska. Murray followed with an ace to tie it up at 22-22.
However, Texas regrouped with a timeout and stuffed Batenhorst for a sideout, then Skinner terminated for set point. Finally, former Husker Keonilei Akana served an ace to take the set.
Skinner had six kills on .364 hitting herself while Nebraska’s three pins combined for four kills and five errors. Nebraska hit .065 to Texas’ .176, and the 3-2 edge in aces doesn’t tell the story of how lopsided the serve and pass battle was.
“I would say the toughest thing was they were just able to mix up depths,” Rodriguez said. “They were hitting us deep and dropping some short, and they just had lots of movement on it, which made it tough for us passers. I think when they’re going on a run, we’re just trying to get one side out, just trying to get a ball high in the middle and run our offense from there. But with tough serves like that, it can be tough sometimes.”
The Huskers got off to a better start in set two, building up a three-point lead at 10-7. Texas responded with an 11-0 run including four straight aces from O’Neal as the Husker passing woes resurfaced in a big way. Cook said he felt “helpless” watching that run from the bench.
“You’re hoping they’ll miss one,” Cook said. “But it just really takes away all of our rhythm and confidence when somebody can do that. I’ve seen it when we’ve done it to other teams. It’s tough. There’s not much you can do. I’ll give you a football analogy, since you like those: it’s like fourth quarter and they’re just running the ball. You know they’re going to run it and you can’t stop them. That’s what it feels like. They just go down the field, and that’s what Texas did.”
An attack error finally ended the run, but the damage was done and Nebraska never got back into it as the Longhorns cruised to an 11-point victory and a 2-0 lead. Texas only hit .167 but held Nebraska to minus-.036 and served seven aces.
Texas continued to roll in the third, winning seven of the first 10 rallies including another ace. The Huskers cut the deficit down to two at 9-7, but a 3-0 run stretched it back out to five and the Longhorns delivered the knockout blow soon after, closing the match on an 11-1. O’Neal put the exclamation point on the championship with a match-point ace.
Texas nearly matched Nebraska’s kills total for the match in the third set, terminating 17 times at a .481 clip. Nebraska hit .000 with five kills.
The 2023 Huskers, consisting entirely of freshmen, sophomores and juniors, finished 33-2 and as the national runner-up.
“I’m very proud of our team for getting here; no seniors and we’ve had a heck of a year, one of the greatest seasons we have ever had at Nebraska this year,” Cook said. “So this match isn’t going to define that and what we’ve accomplished this year, but hopefully it will motivate us for a another run and get back here in 2024.”