TAMPA, Fla. — Taking a big swing is a volleyball term, and that’s just what Texas coach Jerritt Elliott did in looking forward to Sunday’s national championship match.
“This is probably the biggest moment we’ve ever had,” Elliott said of the final airing on network television (3 p.m. ET on ABC) for the first time. “I think people are going to be surfing through the channels, and when they see Texas-Nebraska on with 21,000 people in the crowd, it’s going to be super exciting. It’s one of the building blocks to get this sport to the next level.
“It’s exciting because women’s sports in general are growing left and right. I’m a proponent not just for volleyball but for women’s basketball and really getting people comfortable with seeing these incredible athletes.”
Elliott’s mention of basketball is noteworthy, because the LSU-Iowa women’s hoops NCAA final in April drew the biggest television audience ever for that sport’s national championship game: nearly 10 million.
The volleyball final will have to go up against NFL games, which wasn’t the case in its longtime previous time slot on Saturday night. But growth sometimes means stepping outside a comfort zone.
What viewers will see Sunday are two of volleyball’s longtime superpowers, both of whom are perennial contenders. The Cornhuskers, the overall No. 1 seed, are in their 11th NCAA final, going for their sixth title. It’s the 10th NCAA final for Texas, which seeks its fourth title and second in a row. (Texas also won one championship in the AIAW era).
John Cook, the 2023 national coach of the year, has guided the Huskers’ program since 2000. Elliott has been at the Longhorns’ helm since 2001.
“The stress and the amount of work to sustain something at this level is tremendous,” Elliott said. “What we’ve tried to do is have fun and create the right kind of players. Our administration has given us all the resources.
“I’ve become a lot more of a CEO of the business management of creating a brand … looking at ‘How do we sustain this, how do we grow it, how do we keep up and sustain with Nebraska?’ They’re a benchmark as well.”
Here are five things to watch Sunday as the 33-1 Huskers face the 27-4 Longhorns for the championship.
Texas, Nebraska have history
Stanford (nine) and Penn State (seven) have more NCAA titles, but when it comes to marquee names in volleyball, Nebraska and Texas are right there on the top, too. The Huskers’ volleyball team is one of the few women’s collegiate sports programs that generates a profit, which is a goal of Texas.
The two schools were conference rivals during their time in the Big 12, from 1996 to 2010, before the Huskers moved to the Big Ten. Nebraska has a 33-24 edge in the series; the programs first played in 1981 and most recently met in the 2021 NCAA regional final, won by the Huskers.
They have met for the national championship twice, with the Huskers winning both times: In 2015 in Omaha, and in 1995 in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Texas’ most recent win against Nebraska was in the regional final of the COVID-19 delayed NCAA tournament in April 2021.
“Texas is known for their athleticism,” Cook said. “[Elliott] has done different systems, different tempos, all those things. You play Texas, you’re going to play against a physical, athletic team.”
Big hitters to keep an eye on
Texas has two first-team All-Americans in outside hitter Madisen Skinner and middle blocker Asjia O’Neal, plus outside hitter Jenna Wenaas, who together average about 11.5 points per set. On last season’s national championship team, Skinner and O’Neal were second and third on the team to Logan Eggleston in points. Wenaas is in her first season at Texas after transferring from Minnesota.
NBA fans are likely familiar with Skinner’s and O’Neal’s fathers: Brian Skinner played 14 years in the league and Jermaine O’Neal played 18 years.
As for Nebraska, they are led by first-team All-American Merritt Beason, a transfer from Florida, and freshman Harper Murray, a third-team All-American, who are both outside hitters. Those two along with freshman middle blocker Andi Jackson average about 11.4 points per set.
Beason, a native of Alabama, shared this nugget with media Friday: She doesn’t find her home state very different from Nebraska, save for one major thing.
“No one says ‘y’all,’ so I don’t say ‘y’all’ anymore,” Beason said. “I say ‘you all,’ and my parents give me a really hard time. And everyone in Alabama gives my parents a really hard time when I say ‘you all.’ “
Freshmen setters under pressure
So far, both have proven ready for the big-time, and have the confidence of their teammates and coaches behind them.
Nebraska’s Bergen Reilly, who is from South Dakota, and Texas’ Ella Swindle, a native of Missouri, know each other through USA Volleyball and club play. Both graduated high school early and enrolled in college in January, so they had experience before they started their freshmen seasons. Even so, they have had to adjust to the increased speed of the game and new personnel they were playing with.
The last freshman setter to start in a national championship match was Nebraska’s Nicklin Hames in 2018. The last freshman starting setter to win in the NCAA final was Stanford’s Jenna Gray in 2016; she also won the championship with the Cardinal in 2018 and 2019.
Serving up success
It sounds simple, but getting the point started right makes an enormous difference. Texas’ serving, especially Skinner with six aces, flat-out took over their semifinal victory against Wisconsin. The Longhorns served at 92.6% and had 11 aces. Nebraska was at 91.9% in its semifinal sweep of Pittsburgh and had five aces.
Of course, serve receive is also important, and both teams also did that well in their semifinal wins. Nebraska had just three reception errors, while Texas had four.
Winning the scramble points
Volleyball teams strive to pass the ball well and stay in system as much as possible. But at times, players must do whatever is necessary to keep the rally going. Those are the points where there are typically a couple of spectacular saves, gasping from the crowd, and elite-level scrambling.
On the scoreboard, the winner gets just one point, but emotionally it can feel like more. Against Pittsburgh, Nebraska seemed to win every scramble point, helping keep the momentum in their favor throughout the match. In the Huskers’ lone loss of the season — 3-0 at Wisconsin on Nov. 24 — most of those points went against them.
“Oh, my goodness, yes, — the long rallies, the ugly rallies, the stuff where’s it’s like ‘you didn’t really deserve it’ kind of point,” Nebraska middle blocker Bekka Allick said. “Those things are really frustrating as an opponent when you don’t win them, and that was something that actually hurt us when we last played Wisconsin.
“So that was a point we’ve been hammering ever since that game … because it becomes a point of desperation, wanting to get ball up and just over. And so when you actually win them, it’s huge.”