Nebraska too much for Florida in NCAA volleyball title match

    Nebraska middle blocker Lauren Stivrins (26) attempts to block a shot by Florida middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan (1) during an NCAA Division I volleyball championship game Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
    By Aaron Reiss, Special to The Sun

    KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Florida came here with a chance to secure the school’s first volleyball national title. Instead, the No. 2 seed Gators are just the latest team to fall victim to No. 5 seed Nebraska, which took out three seeded teams to win the national championship.

    The Gators (30-2) lost in four sets (22-25, 17-25, 25-18, 16-25) on Saturday at the Sprint Center.

    “Congratulations to Nebraska,” UF coach Mary Wise said. “I thought they played a very clean match. Obviously, they put a lot of pressure on us with both their serving and their backward defense. But we look at this match, and this match will not define the 2017 Gators. There is so much to be proud of in terms of what they accomplished, and on this night as other teams that have played Nebraska in the past month haven’t had much — any better luck either.

    “That’s a very, very well-coached team, very disciplined, that just took care of the ball exceptionally well tonight.”

    Florida’s five-set win over the Huskers in the second match of the season in Gainesville means nothing now. Maybe it was even a bad sign. The last time Nebraska (32-4) faced an opponent in the NCAA tournament that it lost in the regular season was in 2015, and the Huskers beat Texas to win the national title that year.

    This was essentially a home match for Nebraska. An NCAA-record crowd of 18,516 filled the Sprint Center, most of them in Husker red. The program, making its eighth appearance in the national championship, had made it to the final four three straight seasons.

    Now the Husker program has won two national titles in a three-year span for the first time. And it came at the expense of a Florida team that made the program’s first Final Four since 2003, when the Gators played for the national title.

    “This loss isn’t going to define our season,” said libero Caroline Knop, who had 12 digs. “This isn’t going to define Florida volleyball. So many great things happened this year to have that match be the one that we leave with.”

    Knop had tears in her eyes as she spoke. She looked at her two senior teammates on the podium with her — middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan and outside hitter Carli Snyder — and neither wanted to say anything.

    Both Alhassan and Snyder made the all-tournament team. Alhassan had 7 kills and 6 blocks in the national final. Snyder tied Shainah Joseph with a team-high 11 kills.

    Snyder said she wouldn’t fixate on the defeat. She wanted to focus instead on the fact the Gators had made it here a year after a second-round exit.

    “You can make a change,” Snyder said. “You can shift the culture. You can make a common goal.”

    Wise had said Friday that her players would be competing for past Florida players who fell short of a national title. And just minutes after these Gators lost, they were thinking about the players who would eventually accomplish what they could not.

    “When somebody from Florida is holding that trophy in a few years, that’s going to be us,” Snyder said. “That would have been our chance.”

    The national championship matchup pitted two strong defensive teams against one another. This wasn’t supposed to come down to quick and explosive kills, but patience and spread-out offense.

    Florida’s first three points all came on Nebraska errors. Almost every point in the first set required a long rally, and both teams struggled to hit well. The Huskers hit just .081 percent, and the Gators were even worse — .025 percent. The teams combined for 6 blocks and 34 digs.

    The Huskers scored 7 straight points in the first set, including two kills by Mikaela Foecke — who finished with 20 kills, the only Husker to reach double digits— to take a 18-15 lead. Two straight Florida errors gave Nebraska 24 points, and another Foecke kill sealed the first set for the Huskers.

    “I think we knew that the serve-pass game was going to be crucial in this match, and they definitely won that game tonight,” Snyder said. “It puts us in a difficult position trying to play out-of-system balls. They’re a great defensive team and a great blocking team.

    “I think that when that got better, when our passing improved, we made uncharacteristic errors, it is a very tough environment. The grittiest of teams in that environment are going to struggle. And I think that was part of it as well.”

    Problems really brewed for the Gators in the second set, when Nebraska settled in and the Gators still flailed.

    Nebraska hit .417 in the second set. Five consecutive Husker points came on kills by four different players — Foecke, Kelly Hunter, Lauren Stivrins and Jazz Sweet — to help put the Huskers up 12-7 and force a Florida timeout.

    Florida, which hit .286 on the season, continued to struggle offensively in the second set and hit just .108. The Gators gave Nebraska a 19-12 lead when Cheyenne Huskey tried to slap a ball back toward the Huskers with her back to the net. Instead, the ball hit the net and fell to the floor.

    An attack error by Florida outside hitter Rachel Kramer, who hit just .100, gave Nebraska a 24-17 lead in the second set, and Foecke won it a point later with her fifth kill of the set.

    But this Gator volleyball team, with just one loss in the regular season, wasn’t about to endure a sweep.

    After never leading the second set, the Gators established an early 10-6 lead in the third after a service ace by Alhassan. Nebraska didn’t record a single block in the third set while the Gators hit .308. Alhassan had 4 kills in the set.

    The Husker crowd became its loudest in the fourth set, though, and the Gators began struggling offensively again. Six service or attack errors by Florida helped establish a commanding 9-1 lead for the Huskers, and they would never let Florida get back in the match after that.

    During a news conference Friday, Wise said getting to this point in the season requires breaks — proper matchups, good health and a bit of luck.

    The luck was on Nebraska’s side in this match. The Huskers’ libero, Kenzie Maloney, recorded a kill when she saved a hard spike from hitting the ground and ended up having it fall between some Gators. A point later, she had a service ace to put Nebraska up 17-10, and her teammates began a celebratory dance

    Soon after, Foecke recorded the final kill. She and Hunter, who had 37 assists, shared the Most Outstanding Player award. They helped their coach, John Cook, win his fourth national championship and Nebraska’s fifth overall.

    Florida’s seniors hope they built a program that will somebody resemble the Huskers’.

    “Our goal from last year to this year was to change the culture,” Knop said. “If we did that, we’re going to be so happy leaving this program.”

    The Gators finished with 30 wins, a second NCAA Championship berth and eighth Final Four appearance, a 23rd SEC title, and a single-season home average attendance record.

    “It’s so hard to find a team that everyone likes each other, and I think that’s what we had, and that’s why we enjoyed it so much,” Alhassan said. “That’s kind of the reason why we wanted to change the culture. We were able to change the culture because everyone’s bought in. Everyone wanted to be there.

    “We had people getting up at 6 a.m. for lifts and happy to be there and wanting to be there and respecting our coaching staff, respecting every single person that goes to work and stays up. Our trainers who come in before us and leave after us. That’s why we’re here. It’s kind of the people, the people are what made it fun and made us want to be here. It’s made the last four years an amazing journey.”


    1. Poor performance. No focus. Too many mistakes. You don’t get shots at a national title every year. To make it this far and then not show up for the championship game is inexcusable. It is very frustrating as a fan to watch the team year after year have great seasons, but fall short at the end. This team is one of the most consistent teams in Florida sports. Every year they have a great record. But every year they fall short at the end. I feel for the team and the coach, but something is wrong here This team should have won a National Title.

        • Wrong. You are making excuses. We do have the talent and fan support to compete with other volleyball programs across the country. We have proven that year after year. This year we just beat them all, including Nebraska earlier in the season. Yes I am happy for the team and the great season they had, but I am critical of this game performance. Why is that a problem? You want to accept mediocrity, I want a winner.

          Its the same in football. We got crushed by Nebraska in our first national championship final, but came back the following year and won. We made adjustments. That’s what I am talking about. This team does not seem to be able to do that. Getting to the finals is great, winning is even better.

            • Thank-you John.

              Mary Wise is a great coach, but real greatness is measured in championships.

              Look at Dan Marino and Jim Kelly vs Joe Montana and Tom Brady. All great quarterbacks. But who do you think people are going to say was better or the best?

              I am not saying we should fire Mary Wise, but she needs to win a national championship (or two) to be called truly great. She has the talent.

            • They dont have the talent?….You dont make it to the 2nd best team in the nation without talent!…No, Joel was right, they played uncharacteristically bad. I think the coach has a problem preparing her teams for the pressure of a championship stage. Its a whole ‘nother’ level! Those mistakes were from pressure. They got it together for one set and then the pressure got even higher on the 4th set and they crumbled. It takes a different kind of prep to prepare a team for that kind of pressure and to remain calm, and apparently they just dont have it yet.

        • I disagree that the SEC doesn’t have the talent in volleyball. That may have been true in the past but our difficult non conference schedule coupled with a much stronger SEC (lets not forget Kentucky was a 4 seed – deservedly so – and 5 teams made the tournament). This may have been our best chance. Unfortunately our weakness all year (passing and setting) reared its ugly head against an extremely good serving Nebraska team. The match against Stanford was about as good as I have seen our team play defense all year against strong competition. They just couldn’t sustain it against a really talented Nebraska team in which their strength played right into our weakness.

          That said, this Joel guy can take a hike. Fans like him are welcome and encouraged to move on. I definitely don’t want to sit next to a guy like that in the stands and I am embarrassed he is even posting here. If anyone thinks what those women accomplished is even remotely “mediocre” they obviously don’t understand volleyball or even reality.

          Coach Wise has taken a team with zero history into a perennial National force to be reckoned with. Her recruiting has been lights out (with the number one 6 rotation OH on her way). Unfortunately I really feel like if Abby had stayed we would be holding that trophy right now but oh well. I will certainly be renewing my season tickets and will be thrilled to support this amazing team and coach as I always have. I am very proud and I do believe one day we will finally break that ceiling and win one.

          • This Joel guy is not taking a hike. I am here to stay. I am a life long Gator fan. When Gator teams play well I complement them. Look up my posts and you will see this. When they don’t, I am critical. This is my right as a fan. You can be critical and still be a fan. In fact, you are a better fan because you see reality. You on the other hand are not a true fan. One who only wants to hear positives when there is legitimate criticism is not a true fan. You are a cheerleader. I am sorry if reality offends you, but too bad.

      • You do realize that teams like Nebraska, Penn State, and Texas win nearly 30 games every single year right? Of course it sucks when your team has an amazing year and then falls to another amazing team but that’s just the nature of the sport.

      • Joel, dude, don’t be such a jerk. When and if your team makes it to the end, the only thing that should be said is “great season, we’re proud of you”. Great season ladies…you were the bright spot of the Gator athletic Fall season. So very proud of you.

        • If I am a jerk, you are an ignorant fan. Stop drinking the kool-aid. When has having a good season been good enough? National Championships is what it is all about. This program has great seasons every year, but falls short every year. They need to take the next step and win it all to be truly an elite program. Softball did it. Gymnastics did it. Even Soccer did it. Swimming did it. Its time for Volleyball. They have too much talent not to.

          • Yeah, fire Mary Wise, one of the winningest coaches in the sport. How dare she only get to the national championship game. Maybe we can hire Jim McElwain to coach our team. Something needs to change because a spot in the national championship game and beating out over 100 D-IA teams to get there isn’t good enough.

            • Ask Nebraska if getting to the finals and losing would have been good enough. Ask Penn State. Ask Stanford. Ask the Gators. Ask any of the top teams and they will say no.

            • This Husker says its enough to do your best and come up short. You can’t win them all (ask Alabama football) Husker Volleyball is usually top 10 most years and leads the country in academic all americans so we’re doing it the right way that’s why we led the nation in home attendance (nearly 9000 a game, always sold out)

            • Who said anything about firing Mary Wise? Joel certainly didnt. Thats just a stupid retort. We have an awesome Volleyball team and coach, she just needs to do something different to prepare her teams for the pressure of the championship stage. Mistakes like that are from feeling the pressure instead of being relaxed and thats all on the coach. Apparently the nebraska coach knows how to do that and they have championships because of it. Their team played very relaxed, the stage wasnt too big for them. If all you have are cheerleaders with their fingers in their ears and no one discusses a glaring fault then nothing changes!

    2. Congratulation to all the players and coaches. A great season and a great run through the championship. At sweet sixteen and beyond, all the teams are fabulous, so the Gator run to the finals was terrific.

      It seemed that all the Nebraska servers were exceptional. Florida’s only great server is Carli. Nebraska’s defense was spectacular. Last night Nebraska was simply the better team. My only criticism is the number of dinks Florida tries. At this level – every set needs to result in a slam and virtually every UF dink resulted in a score for Nebraska last night. But that was not decisive.

      No matter – we should all be proud of this team. Thanks for your hard work, dedication, and a great season.

    3. This series and others (softball and baseball championships for example ) is causing me to question one thing: Stop having a specific place for championship games such as college World Series in Omaha. Teams like Nebraska have an unfair home field advantage.
      When a final four is selected, the games should be played on a site as equal distance from all four teams as possible.
      Or restrict ticket sales to the fans of the closer teams to the number of what is purchased by the fans from the farther teams.
      This would eliminate the “home team advantage” at least.

      • Great idea! Put together a Final Four college event in a few days. Reserve an open venue, organize entire event… hotels, ticket printing, ticket sales, promotion, on and on… all in a few days. Maybe we should do this for Basketball Final Four — why plan ahead! Just let it be a surprise! Oh yea, restrict sales of tickets! Why let fans buy them when their team is playing? Just leave the seats empty. No one needs that revenue. Let the host city take a bath! If we just knew what city was hosting. Let’s do this for college football. I mean if a California team gets into the Rose Bowl we should move it to like Colorado so a Big 10 team is equal distance. And the Super Bowl– if Minnesota gets there this year we should just change the venue. It won’t be a big deal. Just need a few days!

    4. Great idea to select and prep a site for over 18,000 fans in less than a week’s time. Also great idea to restrict fans from supporting a sport and the top 4 teams from where ever they are.
      All four teams had great season, great athletes and supportive fans. Celebrate their achievements, support the sport and be glad to watch volleyball played at a high level, whether in person or at home

    5. The Gators have a great program and a great coach. But it takes talent, teamwork, coaching, execution, and luck, not to mention ref calls. it’s tough to get all those areas working at the same time against top teams. It took Tom Osborne (Nebraska football coach) twenty years to finally get a national title. (and many years there were idiots demanding he get fired for not beating Oklahoma and winning a national title) Stay the course and the Gators will probably get a title or two in the next decade.
      Just a note the Gators beat Nebraska at home in 5 sets when the Huskers setter (hunter) was out with an injury. the Huskers were a solid team but great with their setter (quarterback) healthy. As far as tournament sites, the NCAA is realistic about money for sports and since 9 of the 11 all time biggest attendance games came with Nebraska involved there will be tournaments in the midwest because of the revenue.

    6. Mary Wise’s comment about they have “one more away game to play” is the wrong attitude and message to send to her team. Championship caliber teams win everywhere. Their coaches, players and fans could care less where they play. They believe they can beat anyone anywhere. I saw the difference in attitudes when Nebraska had to go to Lexington and play Kentucky in the regionals. You knew they were coming with an attitude when they posted on their twitter account “Any day, any time, any place, we’ll be there!”

      Recall the 2008 Penn State team that did not lose a SET the entire regular season, beat everyone 3-0. Then they ran into Nebraska in the semi finals in Omaha. 17,000 strong rooting for the Huskers, but Penn State won the first two sets. Then the Huskers won the next two, the first sets Penn State had lost all year. With the Huskers leading 10-8 in the fifth set the crowd was in a frenzy! Penn State took a timeout…came back on the court and did a 7-1 run and silenced the crowd and won the match! Championship mentality.