As the confetti floated down around him, Kevin Hambly experienced a flood of emotions. Elation, at coaching Stanford to a record eighth NCAA women’s volleyball championship. Pride, in the players who regrouped after a wobbly fourth set to outlast Nebraska in Saturday’s grueling five-set title match at Target Center.
When Hambly was asked how he felt, though, he admitted the stress of a demanding, draining, dazzling match left him unable to process it. “I don’t know,’’ he said. “I’m tired, actually. I’m just exhausted.’’
With equal measures of talent, heart and will, Stanford and Nebraska produced an unforgettable finale to Minnesota’s first volleyball Final Four in 30 years. The first title match since 2009 to go to five sets was a toss-up all the way to the end — and even that was momentarily in doubt. The Cardinal began its celebration after Meghan McClure’s back-row kill, but Nebraska coach John Cook made one last stand, unsuccessfully challenging the point.
It was upheld, concluding a 2-hour, 37-minute match. Though there were 137 kills, 147 digs, 20.5 blocks and 353 kill attempts, only one point separated the winner from the loser in the Cardinal’s 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 victory.
“It was a great night for volleyball,’’ Cook said. “Two of the most storied programs in college volleyball went at it, put on a great match.
“It was exciting. It had drama. It went back and forth. Congratulations to Stanford. I’m very proud of our team and how hard they fought.’’
Even without a hometown team, total attendance for the tournament was announced as 35,921, second only to the 36,863 that turned out in Kansas City, Mo., last year to watch Nebraska take the crown. NCAA officials said 18,113 people attended Saturday’s final, second-most in history for a championship match and third-most for any single session of the tournament.
They saw a taut match that featured remarkable individual performances. Mikaela Foecke, Nebraska’s sublime senior outside hitter, had a career-high 27 kills, with many coming when the Cornhuskers needed them most. Stanford libero Morgan Hentz finished with 32 digs and shared the tournament’s most outstanding player award with teammate Kathryn Plummer, who had 19 kills.
For Cook, the loss in the title match wasn’t the most painful part of his evening. The coach now must say goodbye to Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, two seniors who Cook said “willed this team to win’’ when no one expected the Huskers to contend for a championship.
Their leadership turned a collection of individuals into a strong unit that kept improving, and they set a new standard for postseason success. Foecke and Maloney went 21-2 in NCAA tournament matches during their careers, the best run in program history.
Cook had considered the 2017 NCAA title season his finest year at Nebraska. This one surpassed it, even though it ended without the big trophy.
“I’ve had more fun coaching this year, more satisfaction, more enjoyment, because of where we started and all the mountains we had to climb,’’ said Cook, in his 19th season as the Huskers’ head coach. “For us to compete and be there in the end, it’s pretty rewarding. Mikaela and Kenzie, it’s been really a cool journey with those guys.’’
In the locker room down the hallway, the talk centered on beginnings, not endings. After the Cardinal won the championship in 2016, coach John Dunning retired; he was replaced by Hambly, who had been head coach at Illinois for eight seasons. Stanford’s players believed they had the potential to repeat last year, but they lost in the semifinals, a stinging defeat that lingered in their minds all season.
Hambly quickly got another shot to prove he could lead Stanford to a title. As the trophy was brought out Saturday, his initial reaction to earning the program’s eighth championship — and his first as a head coach — was relief.
With one title to his credit, he hopes to add to that number, though he will take time to relish this one.
“One of the things I said to my wife was, ‘It’s done,’ ’’ Hambly said. “I don’t have to worry about that any more.
“Like [Kentucky basketball coach John] Calipari said, you don’t have that hanging over your head, to win the national championship. That’s out of the way. Now we can try to win more at Stanford.”