This was one of those phenomenal championship events when you came away more impressed with the loser than the winner. The last time that occurred for me for an event involving Nebraska was on Jan. 2, 1984, when football coach Tom Osborne went for a two-point conversion, watched his team fail and gave up the No. 1 ranking in the country with a 31-30 loss to the Miami Hurricanes.
Greatest college football game I’ve ever witnessed.
All those years later, I saw the best college volleyball match in a couple of decades of monitoring the sport, and once again Nebraska — this time as an underdog — was the unfortunate loser.
Way back in ’84, there was no OT in college football, and Nebraska would have finished as national champions by settling for a tie, and yet Osborne wanted as an unbeaten, clear-cut champions.
This time, Nebraska came in as the defending champions, but also a team that tied for third in the Big Ten at 15-5 — behind conference winner Minnesota (19-1) and Illinois (17-3).
The Illini lost to the Gophers in straight sets in October, and then had a 17-match winning streak going into Thursday’s national semifinals vs. Nebraska at Target Center. Illinois won the first two sets and then the never-die Huskers came back to force the 15-point (or more) fifth set.
There was a huge and questionable change in the score made after a successful challenge by Nebraska coach John Cook. A 12-12 tie became a 13-11 lead for Nebraska and that did in Illinois; a 15-11 victory that sent the Huskers into Saturday’s title match.
This time, Nebraska’s challenge was No. 1-seeded Stanford, a volleyball machine with a 31-match winning streak. The only Cardinal loss had been at BYU in the third match of the season, and Stanford avenged that by demolishing the Cougars on Thursday.
The Cardinal looked so great with its 6-6 outside hitters, Kathryn Plummer and Audriana Fitzmorris, and with 6-2 senior Tami Alade leading a tremendous defensive block, that it was tough for us amateur observers to see a way to victory for Nebraska — particularly considering the Huskers were coming off five tough sets in Thursday’s late game, with Stanford coming off a breeze in the early one.
It didn’t take long to realize that Nebraska was fully a match for Stanford: maybe a tick less star power, but with wonderful defensive execution and a grit for the ages.
The Huskers pushed Stanford to five sets, and in the end, they were done in on a questionable overturn after a challenge from Cardinal coach Kevin Hambly on whether a serve was in or out.
The review started with Nebraska down 13-11, and it ended with Stanford up 14-10 and with four match points. The Huskers fought off the first two, and then sophomore Meghan McClure, only 6 feet tall on that gigantic Stanford front, came down the middle and put away the winner.
Stanford was the Division I volleyball champion for the eighth time, breaking a tie with Penn State at seven.
Plummer had been named the volleyball coaches’ choice for the National Player of the Year for the second consecutive year. She’s a junior and could make it three in a row in 2019, but she was not the best hitter on the court Saturday.
That was Mikaela Foecke, a 6-foot-3 senior from West Point, Iowa. She had been named as the MVP for the Final Four twice when Nebraska won it: 2015 and last season. And it would have been the easiest call in history to make her the MVP again, if Nebraska had prevailed in that fifth set.
Foecke kept attacking the Stanford block until it wasn’t there as persistently. She had 27 kills in 71 attacks — not the greatest percentage at .296, but better than Plummer (.153, 19-for-59 with 10 errors).
Probably out of utter exhaustion, Foecke airmailed a serve in the middle of the fifth set that helped Stanford crawl its way to the decisive 15 points.
Stanford has a fabulous team, but this Nebraska bunch … warriors. The Huskers were the sharper team in first set, let it get away 28-26, came back to win the next set 25-22. And when the Cardinal got its act back together to win the third set 25-16, the Huskers exploded to a 9-1 lead in the fourth set and rolled to a 25-15 victory.
Then came the fifth, complete with the reversal. I’ve witnessed tougher losses for a gallant Nebraska team, but that was decades ago in the Orange Bowl.