They take turns.
Nebraska won it all in 2015.
Stanford captured the crown in 2016.
Nebraska took it back last year.
And now it belongs once again to Stanford, which won the program’s eighth NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship on Saturday night, capping a 34-1 season with a 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 victory.
It broke a tie with Penn State for the most NCAA titles in the 38-year history of the event.
The match ended, kind of, on Meghan McClure’s back-row attack that went off of Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins for the clinching point.
And Stanford — which won its last 32 matches — celebrated for a few seconds before 18,113 in the Target Center.
But then everything stopped and the Cardinal had to wait for a ruling on a desperation challenge by Nebraska coach John Cook — claiming that McClure took off in front of the 10-foot line — that was unsuccessful.
“Meghan was heartbroken because she thought she was over (the line). She lost the national championship. That wasn’t going to be the case because we still had another swing at it,” second-year Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said.
“The thing we were saying if this turns, we’re fine, 14-13, we can side out, we’re going to be great. Keep their heads straight on that, calm down Meghan. Some were crying because they won the national championship, some were crying because they were scared they made a mistake.”
Hambly said the back-row attack wasn’t a called play, just something setter Jenna Gray and McClure did in transition.
“The thing about that point, we’ve been asking Meghan to hit the BIC hard in transition like that all year and she finally did. That’s what I was excited about, she actually took a rip on it, especially in that big of a moment. Pretty special swing.”
When the official ruling gave Stanford the point, down came the confetti and the real celebration was on.
Nebraska’s season ended 29-7. Its star, Mikaela Foecke, led all players with 27 kills, which came on the heels of 19 in the Huskers’ semifinal win over Illinois.
Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer led the Cardinal with 19 kills despite hitting .153 and seeming out of sync in all aspects all match long. Plummer had 10 hitting errors and four service errors to go with an ace. She and freshman Holly Campbell, who had a career-high 15 kills, had three apiece in the fifth set. Campbell had just one hitting error in 29 attacks and hit .483.
“I think that Nebraska was just doing a really good job of executing their game plan,” Plummer said. “We found out other ways to score when I wasn’t scoring. Other people stepped up, and that’s what did it for us.”
Libero Morgan Hentz had 32 digs and four assists and shared most-outstanding-player honors with Plummer. Stanford advanced by sweeping BYU in the semifinals.
Audriana Fitzmorris had 14 kills for Stanford and five blocks. Gray had three kills, 57 assists, an ace and two blocks. Tami Alade had six kills with one error in 12 swings, hit .417 and led with eight blocks.
Stanford, making its 16th national-championship match appearance, previously won titles in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2004 and 2016. This was the second in three years for the core group of four juniors, Plummer, Gray, Hentz and Fitzmorris.
Foecke had just six errors in 71 swings and hit .296 and added 12 digs in her final college match.
“Foecke was unbelievable in that match. We couldn’t touch her,” Hambly said. “It’s sad to see her leave the sport — not the sport, but leave the NCAA. She’s going to have a long career ahead of her. I think we just all have a lot of respect for that team, how hard they play, the way they defend, the way they scrap.”
Stivrins had 19 kills with three errors in 26 attacks and hit .615. She had five blocks, including the team’s only solo block. Jazz Sweet had 10 kills but hit .103. She had three digs and five blocks.
“I think that Stanford made a few great plays,” said Foecke, who was the most outstanding player when Nebraska won in 2015 and shared the honor last year with Kelly Hunter. “We had a few errors. Ended up obviously costing us a few extra points that won them the match.
Lexi Sun, who took until the last set to get into positive hitting ground, had seven kills. Sun, who hit .030, added an ace, 15 digs and a block. Davis Capri had five kills with one error in eight swings. Setter Nicklin Hames had a kill to go with 62 assists and 12 digs and libero Kenzie Maloney had four assists and 17 digs.
“I think it’s a great night for volleyball, two of the most storied programs in college volleyball went at it, put on a great match,” said Cook, who took Nebraska to the final four for the fourth year in a row. “What was the crowd, 18,000? It was an exciting match. It had drama. It went back and forth.”
To say the least.
As Nebraska was chasing its sixth title — the Huskers won in 1995 and then under Cook in 2000, 2006, 2015 and last year — the evening was kicked off with a Woodstock-like kind of national anthem as Minnesota student Brian Neff played an electronic guitar solo of the Star Spangled Anthem.
Plummer was very un-Plummer like in the first set, finishing with six of her kills — three came at 20 points or after — but hitting .111 after making four errors, having trouble passing and seeming totally out of sync.
Nebraska came out and put Stanford on its heels from the get-go, forcing Hambly to call his first time out at 9-4.
The lead got to 10-5, but the Cardinal started to chip away. The first set was tied for the first time at 18-18.
Stanford led 24-21 but Nebraska came back on an attack error by Plummer, an attack error by Fitzmorris, and then McClure shanked a serve that Stivrins crushed.
But Stanford grabbed the upper hand and had four set points before closing it out. Sun’s hitting error gave Stanford a 27-26 lead and then Gray set McClure three times. She was dug three times, but the set ended when Gray stuffed Sun. Sun finished the first set with no kills and four errors in 10 swings to leave her at minus .400.
Foecke ran a clinic in the last part of the second set, getting kills for five of Nebraska’s last seven points. She finished the set with eight kills, 15 overall, and was hitting .438 with one error in 32 swings.
The set ended on a hitting error by Stivrins that was negated by McClure getting called for being in the net. At that time, Stivrins had 10 kills with one error in 13 swings and was hitting .692.
Plummer also heated up for Stanford, ending the set with 12 kills, raising her hitting percentage to .200.
Stanford was in control throughout the third set as Foecke cooled off a bit. The lead got to 20-9, Nebraska pulled to 21-14, but the Cardinal never got flustered. Fitzmorris had five or her kills in the set.
Nebraska was hardly rattled and bolted to a 9-1 fourth-set lead. The closest Stanford got was 14-9. As they headed to the fifth, Foecke had 23 kills, Stivrins 18, and Sweet 10 for Nebraska. Sun had five and was hitting minus .032.
Plummer had 16 kills, Fitzmorris 14 and Campbell 12.
“In that fourth set, Nebraska came out swinging hard,” Hentz said. “They were on top of it. They got us out of system with their serve. We weren’t able to get in rhythm.
“Going into the fifth set, we got to lay it out there, give it everything we have. It took us a while to get there. Nebraska kept coming back and back. They put up an amazing fight.
“We were able to fight back, as well.”
That wasn’t lost on Plummer.
“I think our team, like I said, took it point by point. You can’t look ahead or behind. A fifth set is short. If you hold up on things, it’s not going to end in your favor,” Plummer said.
“We did a good job of coming out strong after that crummy fourth set.”
The fifth set was the battle you would have expected. Foecke had two kills as Nebraska went up 3-1, but Stanford bounced back and took a 5-3 lead on a Sweet error, a block by Alade of Sweet, and then a hitting error by Foecke.
Stanford could only get ahead by as many as two, but Davis went off the block to get the Huskers to 11-10. Campbell answered with a kill off a slide and Nebraska called time.
Gray made it 13-10 with a wicked lefty dump and then things got interesting.
Sydney Wilson, who had three previous aces — Stanford finished with nine — sent a serve screaming down the line. It was called out, which would have made it 13-11, but Stanford challenged.
The replay, which took a long time, showed a ball that was in by the smallest of margins. The call was reversed and the Cardinal led 14-10.
Foecke responded with a kill — her fourth of the set — and Stanford was then called in the net. Hambly called time with the lead cut to 14-12.
“I don’t know,” Hambly said when asked how he felt. “I’m tired actually. I’m just exhausted. I don’t think it’s all settled in. I think one of the things I said to my wife (Stanford director of operations Mary Hambly), It’s done, I don’t have to worry about that any more.
“Like (Kentucky basketball coach John) Calipari said, you don’t have that hanging over your head to win the national championship. That’s out of the way, now we can try to win more at Stanford.”
This was Hambly’s second trip to the NCAA final. His Illinois team lost in 2011 to UCLA and last year, as the first-year Stanford coach, the Cardinal lost in the semifinals.
“I think I kind of need some time to calm down, let it set in,” Hambly said. “I’m too tired to really think about what this means, how excited I am. It’s been a long season.”
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