It's one of my favorite times of year. Not only is it the holiday season, but it is tournament time for NCAA Division I volleyball. The tournament began with 64 teams, and now we are down to the Final Four: the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Penn State Nittany Lions, the University of Florida Gators and Stanford University.
These four teams have come out on top this volleyball season, but which one is going to take home the ultimate trophy in NCAA volleyball? We will find out on Dec. 16.
Until then, the semi-final games will take place on Thursday, Dec. 14 with Nebraska and Penn State going head to head, leaving Stanford and Florida to duke it out for the other spot in the championship match.
This first match can go either way; Nebraska and Penn State have always been two of the strongest teams in the NCAA. However, if we are going off how the teams are currently playing, my vote would go with the Cornhuskers for winning this match-up. Powerhouse outside hitters Annika Albrecht and Mikaela Foecke have been averaging more than three kills per set for the season. This Nebraska team has been taking the NCAA by storm going 26-4 on the season and 19-1 in conference play. They are also the only team to beat the Nittany Lions in conference play, let alone sweep Penn State in their home gym.
Penn State, on the other hand, has been struggling throughout the tournament competition (although they can't be struggling too much to make it to the NCAA tournament). Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington lead the offense for this team, both also averaging over three kills per set this season. The team itself has been somewhat inconsistent, losing a set to Howard University in the first round of the tournament (yes they won overall, and yes I was rooting for Howard that game, but still) and have let other games go longer than they should have.
With the inconsistency of this Penn State team throughout the tournament for even just a set, a team like Nebraska will take full advantage of these opportunities. When it comes to defense, the Cornhuskers top their opponent with 15.1 digs per set versus the 13 digs per set posted by the Nittany Lions. If you ask me, I think the Cornhuskers will be making a championship appearance this year.
This leads to the next match on Thursday with Florida and Stanford. When looking at Florida, you have the SEC Player of the Year in Rhamat Alhassan averaging 1.75 blocks per set. Carli Snyder also contributes immensely to the scoring for Florida with her 3.44 kills per set. They are a team that has not been to the national semifinal since 2003, and they are ready to go for the title.
Stanford, on the other hand, is the returning national champions in the tournament. This group of players returned to the court this year and proved to everyone they deserved to be back on top. This sophomore-heavy team already knows what it feels like to win a championship, and they want more. Sophomore outside hitter Kathryn Plummer leads the way for this team with 4.73 kills per set with sophomore setter Jenna Gray averaging 12.14 assists per set.
The defense for both of these teams is phenomenal, but Florida would have the advantage from looking at team statistics with 16 digs per set compared to Stanford's 12.4 per set. Although I would love to see a young team come back on top for back-to-back championships, I think Florida is too well-rounded not to come out on top.
Once the finals come around (if my predictions are true), I would love to be in Kansas City to watch these two teams fight for the title. I do no think stats could prepare anyone for the match that would take place in that gym. For the team I think will take the national championship, I am going to make the biased decision and go with the Cornhuskers.
I have been so impressed with Albrecht as she came out of nowhere this season and filled a much-needed role on the team after graduating the Rolfzen sisters. Foecke has been a contributor on the front line since she joined the team and continues to shine. As long as they work their way around Alhassan's block, the Cornhuskers should be confident heading into the remainder of the tournament.
Penn State and Nebraska will kick-off the Final Four matches at 6 p.m. with Stanford and Florida to follow on Thursday. The winners of those matches will meet at the Sprint Center in Kansas City on Saturday night to battle for the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship. All of the matches will be shown on ESPN.