Midwestern volleyball will be showcased in NCAA semifinals
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) It will be a celebration of Midwestern volleyball in the NCAA semifinals on Thursday night at the sold-out CenturyLink Center.
For the first time in the national tournament's 35 years, there are no teams from the West Coast or Hawaii in the final four.
Big Ten champion Minnesota (30-4) meets Big 12 champ Texas (29-2) in the first semifinal. Nebraska (30-4), playing 50 miles from its Lincoln campus, faces Kansas (30-2) in the second semifinal. The title match is Saturday.
''Way back, Nebraska and Texas kind of opened the door, and then Penn State, that it was a non-West Coast championship,'' Nebraska coach John Cook said. ''Now you're seeing teams like BYU, Kansas that are breaking the doors down in regard to anybody can get into this final four and this NCAA championship. You're seeing great balance across the country.''
Texas has won two national titles, Nebraska has won three and Penn State won six of the last eight. The paths to those championships often went through teams from the West. The rising level of play across the country shows up on the semifinalists' 16-player rosters. Texas has 11 homegrown players, Minnesota has nine, Nebraska has seven and Kansas has six, and many of the other players are from neighboring states.
''When I got to Texas in 2000, the state wasn't very hot, and now it's arguably one of the best states,'' Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott said. ''California was the hottest state. Now you look at the Midwest in terms of how many great players are coming out of there.''
Minnesota has won four of seven all-time matches against Texas, and the teams split the most recent meetings in 2012. The Gophers made the semifinals for the fourth time since 2003 after missing the tournament last year for the first time since 1998.
''Everyone in this group kind of understood what hard work needed to be put in for us to reach the goals that we needed, that we wanted,'' Big Ten player of the year Daly Santana said. ''All of us made that decision, I guess, to be the team that we wanted to be this year.''
Kansas is the biggest surprise, advancing as the No. 9 seed after knocking off No. 1 Southern California in a thrilling five-set regional final in San Diego.
The Cornhuskers and Kansas haven't met since 2010, the year before Nebraska moved from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. Nebraska is 86-0-1 against the Jayhawks, with that tie coming in a two-set match in 1977, and the Huskers will have an overwhelming home-court advantage.
''Obviously, Kansas hasn't been competitive enough over the years and Nebraska has been an elite volleyball program for a long time,'' KU coach Ray Bechard said. ''So we'll speak to more recent history. Hopefully tomorrow night we can create maybe a different situation.''
An overview of the semifinals:
TEXAS VS. MINNESOTA
Longhorns: This is No. 3 seed Texas' 11th appearance in the semifinals, seventh in eight years and fourth in a row. Seniors Kat Brooks, Molly McCage and Amy Neal played on the 2012 championship team. The Longhorns swept 20 opponents and made it to Omaha after a five-set win over Florida. Regional MVP Chiaka Ogbogu hit .469 against Florida and UCLA, and Big 12 player of the year Amy Neal has 49 service aces and averages 4.2 kills per set.
Gophers: The No. 2 seed is hitting a tournament-best .368, Santana is averaging 5.1 kills per set the last four matches and Molly Lohman 1.9 blocks. Freshman Samantha Seliger-Swenson is leading the tournament with 13.54 assists per set. Minnesota played Texas the last time it reached the semifinal, losing in three sets in 2009.
KANSAS VS. NEBRASKA
Jayhawks: They're in the tournament for a fourth straight year and should have staying power with a core made up of underclassmen. Only losses this season are to Texas. San Diego Regional MVP Ainise Havili is second nationally with 12.2 assists per set.
Cornhuskers: Three homegrown high school teammates lead the No. 2 Huskers – All-American Kadie Rolfzen (3.3 kills, 2.9 digs per set), Amber Rolfzen (1.6 blocks) and Kelly Hunter (11.6 assists). The Huskers are 0-2 against fellow semifinalists, having lost a five-set match at Texas in September and a four-setter to Minnesota at home in October.