By Dave Skretta, The Associated Press
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s difficult to call a volleyball program that has been to the Final Four eight times an underdog, especially the way Florida rallied to beat Southern California and punch its latest ticket.
Yet of the four schools descending on the Sprint Center in Kansas City this week, the No. 2 seed Gators (29-1) without question have the shortest resume of them all.
And that says a lot about their competition.
Start with third-seeded Stanford (30-3), which is back in the national semifinals for its NCAA-best 21st appearance and seeking its eighth national championship. Then go to top-seeded Penn State (33-1), which is playing in its 13th semifinal and also going for an eighth title. And throw in fifth-seeded Nebraska (30-4), which merely has four national championship trophies at home.
“We’ve been so close,” said Gators coach Mary Wise, whose team had been to three regional finals before rallying to beat the Trojans last weekend and return to the Final Four for the first time since losing the 2003 title match. “It’s an opportunity and you want to take full advantage, no regrets.”
If nothing else, the Gators should be used to playing Pac-12 foes.
They knocked off UCLA and Southern California to reach their semifinal match tonight against the Cardinal and their star, Kathryn Plummer. The reigning champions, meanwhile, swept Texas to reach the Final four in back-to-back years for the first time since going to three straight from 2006-08.
Don’t think the Gators are intimidated, though.
We’ve got two more matches,” Florida star Rhamat Alhassan said, referring to the semifinal and the title match Saturday night. “That’s a great way to go out at the end of your season.”
Another good way to go out? How about going home.
Cardinal setter Jenna Gray and middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris are both from suburban Kansas City, and they starred together at St. James Academy before heading west for college. The two sophomores have become important pieces for a team that hasn’t missed a beat after the retirement of longtime coach John Dunning and the arrival of former Illinois coach Kevin Hambly.
“I’m really excited,” Gray said. “One of my friends told me my senior year of high school that the Final Four would be in Kansas City my sophomore year of college, so this has been something that’s been on my radar for a couple of years now. I’m definitely excited to see everyone.”
Fitzmorris remembers watching Penn State beat California to win the 2010 title in Kansas City.
“I’m glad to be able to be back in that environment,” she said.
The Nittany Lions are glad to be back in that environment, too.
They swept Michigan State in the regional final and will bring a 23-match winning streak into the Final Four. Their only loss all season? To their semifinal opponent, Nebraska.
The Huskers beat Kentucky on the road to advance, improving to 5-0 against teams ranked in the top 10 and hitting the 30-win mark for the third straight season. Their trip to the Final Four is their third straight, something that has never happened in program history.
“We’re going to play our game, do what we can do and expose our own strengths,” the Nittany Lions’ Bryanna Weiskircher said. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the net.”
Penn State leads the nation in hitting percentage and blocks per set, and longtime coach Russ Rose’s team is led by Big Ten player of the year Simone Lee and senior Heidi Thelen.
“We went freshman year and I didn’t see the court, but it was still an awesome experience,” Thelen said of the 2014 championship in Oklahoma City. “Now, actually being a part of it on the court is something different and really exciting. I’m happy to spend these moments with my teammates and we want to win, so we’re going to work hard.”
What: NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship semifinals
Who: No. 2 seed Florida (29-1) vs. No. 3 Stanford (30-3), 9:30 p.m.
No. 1 seed Penn State (33-1) vs. No. 5 Nebraska (30-4), 7 p.m.
Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City
Saturday: Today’s winners play for national title, 9 p.m.