The NCAA women’s volleyball final four is here. The semifinal matches will be played Thursday night at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska: second-seeded Minnesota (30-4) vs. third-seeded Texas (29-2) at 6 p.m. CT and fourth-seeded Nebraska (30-4) vs. ninth-seeded Kansas (30-2) at 8:30 p.m. CT.
To give you a coach’s perspective on who to focus on and what to watch, Art of Coaching had contributing editor Jim Stone analyze each team. Jim, the former head coach of the Ohio State women’s team and the current head coach of the U.S. Girls’ Youth National team, also shares some thoughts on what coaches can learn from watching each team.
Nebraska (Big Ten Conference)
- Five good attackers who can carry the load.
- Good setter (Kelly Hunter) who is very accurate. Hitters always get good swings at the ball.
- Three good back-row subs (Kenzie Maloney, Justine Wong-Orantes and Annika Albrecht) who pass well to allow the offense to be very consistent and keep all attackers involved. At times, Albrecht also provides back-row offense.
- All front-row players are good blockers. Amber Rolfzen, a 6-3 middle, is an exceptional blocker, especially as she goes to block the outside attack. Nebraska doesn’t have any major skill weakness. Good attacking, consistent serve-receive, good defense (especially with Maloney and Wong-Orantes) and good blocking at all front-row positions. If the Huskers pass well and keep all the attackers involved, they are a challenge to stop. The key for Nebraska is to establish the middle attack in front of the setter to open up the net for outside hitters Kadie Rolfzen, Mikaela Foecke and Kelsey Fien.
What coaches can learn from Nebraska: The importance of quality setting and a balanced offense. Hunter does a great job getting all hitters involved and forces the block to defend every attacker and the entire net.
Minnesota (Big Ten Conference)
- Although outside hitter Daly Santana is the featured attacker, all of the Golden Gopher attackers can put up big numbers.
- Both Hannah Tapp and her twin sister, Paige Tapp, hit a good slide behind the setter to spread the block.
- Santana and Sarah Wilhite are consistent left-side hitters who are point-scorers. Santana is also a back-row attacking threat out of middle back.
- The fast tempo of Minnesota’s offense, especially the sets to the pins, will present issues for any block. Setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson runs the offense well.
- A quality libero in Dalianliz Rosado. She’s a consistent passer who works very hard as a defender. Blocking isn’t the strongest skill for Seliger-Swenson or Santana, so depending on the matchup, that could prove to be an issue. Late in the Gophers’ win over Hawaii in regional final, the Rainbows’ left-side attackers had success hitting off the hands of Seliger-Swenson. The other front-row players are very good blockers. To beat Minnesota, you must serve very well and limit the offense to outside hitters. This takes pressure off the middles to get to the outside to block the fast-tempo set to the pin.
What coaches can learn from Minnesota: The fast offense that Selinger-Swenson runs puts a lot of stress on the block. This tempo of set to either antennae spreads out the block and really puts pressure on the middles to go from antennae to antennae to defend. The result is often a poorly formed block that Minnesota can exploit. And their tempo remains relatively the same when the setter comes off the net to set.
Texas (Big 12 conference)
- Like Nebraska, the Longhorns have 3 good passers who keep them in system: defensive specialist Nicole Dalton, libero Cat McCoy and outside hitter Amy Neal.
- Middle blockers Chiaka Ogbogu and Molly McCage supply good slide attacks to spread the block.
- Chloe Collins is a very dependable setter. She locates the ball well, especially behind her to the slide attacker.
- Very athletic team. Middle blockers move laterally extremely well and transition to offense quickly.
- McCoy is a great defender from both middle back and left back. With quality serve reception, Texas consistently stays in system and keeps the middle hitters involved in the offense. The middles can hit both in front and behind the setter; however, McCage is most comfortable running the slide. Neal and Paulina Prieto Cerame provide consistent offense from the left.
What coaches can learn from Texas: The fact that a team with a 5-7 setter (Collins) can get to the national semifinals should send signals to coaches that the quality of the setting and being a great leader is more important than height. Collins is a very accurate setter, a good defender and a great team leader. Those ingredients are valuable in all 6 rotations. At times, there might be blocking matchup challenges, but Collins will win Texas far more points than she will cost them with her blocking.
Kansas (Big 12 Conference)
- Setter Ainise Havili is a good athlete and a very accurate setter. Kansas’ offense moves hitters around with, at times, multiple quick attackers. Havili monitors traffic well and makes good choices.
- Good right-side attack with opposite Kelsie Payne and middle hitter Tayler Soucie, who runs slides.
- Good passing and general ball control team.
- Very accurate serving team.
Kansas has good ball control and serves well. The Jayhawks can compete athletically with the other teams at the Final Four. The offense must come from the middle hitters (Soucie and Janae Hall) and Payne on the right. This trio has put up high numbers all year. For them to be productive, though, the serve-receive must be spot on. The left-side attack with Tiana Dockery and Madison Rigdon must be effective when the offense is out of system.
What coaches can learn from Kansas: The value of serve and pass cannot be taken for granted. Kansas is solid at both these skills and it allows them to compete successfully.
Minnesota vs. Texas
- This is an intriguing matchup. In terms of height, athleticism and volleyball skills, these teams are even. Both have solid serve-receive, good setting and a balanced attack from every position. Both put a lot of pressure on blockers at both antennae with the ability to run slides behind the setter. Both have a solid left-side attack. So, the match could be decided by subtle factors.
What to watch for
- Both teams have setters who are small blockers. Will the opponent be able to take advantage?
- Which team’s right-side offense will be more effective? Minnesota has right-side offense in all 6 rotations with Hannah Tapp being the opposite attacker and her sister, Paige Tapp, running slides as a middle. This will place a lot of pressure on the left side block of Texas, specifically Amy Neal, who is a smaller left-side for Texas. For Texas, Molly McCage and Chiaka Ogbogu both get behind the setter for slide attacks at every opportunity.
- Will either team serve at a level to force the opponent out of system? This will put the offense in the hands of the left-side attackers or, for Minnesota, to pipe sets to Daly Santana.
- Will the tempo of Minnesota’s offense impose stress on the Texas block?
- Texas has been to the last 3 national semifinal matches. Could this experience allow for smoother play?
- At the regional final, Santana scored 40% of the points. Can she carry this type of load vs. Texas?
Bottom line: This will be a very close match that could easily go to 5 sets. I can see either team winning, but I would be very surprised if either team wins easily.
Kansas vs. Nebraska
Based on regional final play, Nebraska is the favorite in this match. Nebraska is a little more athletic and a little more skilled at every position. The things that Kansas does well that could allow them to compete: They serve tough and accurate; they receive serve well. They will need to serve very well to the edges of the court and get Nebraska out of system. This can allow their block, which is very capable, to get to the attack. As we mentioned, Nebraska is very balanced offensively. If Kansas’ serve can limit the setting options, they can defend successfully. From the offensive perspective, Kansas must get more points and greater efficiency from the outside attackers.
What to watch for
- Can the Kansas middles hit for high numbers? If Kansas can run their offense through their middles, it will take some offensive pressure off the outsides. Of course, this requires good serve-receive
- Can the Kansas serve Nebraska out of system?
- Kansas is at a Final Four for the first time. Nebraska is playing in front of a “home” crowd. Will this environment get the best of either team?
Bottom line: In the 1985 national championship men’s basketball game, Georgetown was the overwhelming favorite. But Villanova shot 78% from the field and shocked all the experts. This will have to be a similar situation. Kansas will have to be almost perfect to beat the Huskers.