Big Ten classic: Wisconsin beats Nebraska in five to win NCAA volleyball crown

Wisconsin wins it all/Michael Gomez photo

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was no way the last match of the greatest season in NCAA volleyball history wasn’t going five.

And there was no way Dana Rettke was going to be denied on match point. 

The Wisconsin fifth-year senior took a back set from best friend Sydney Hilley and blasted the ball to the floor, ending a fantastic rally that gave the Badgers the NCAA volleyball championship 22-25, 31-29, 25-23, 23-25, 15-12.

Wisconsin, which previously lost in the 2013 and 2019 finals, becomes the 12th school to win an NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship and did it by winning a match fitting of the two best teams from the best conference.

Anna Smrek had two remarkable matches for Wisconsin in Columbus/Wall Nell photo

Fourth-seeded Wisconsin (31-4), the Big Ten champion, was led by 6-foot-9 Canadian freshman Anna Smrek, who followed her almost unbelievable semifinals performance with 14 more kills with just two errors in 28 attacks to hit .429. She had seven blocks. In Wisconsin’s five-set match over Louisville on Thursday, Smrek had 20 kills with one error in 27 attacks and three blocks, capping perhaps the greatest final-four performance ever by a freshman. 

Tenth-seeded Nebraska, which finished second in the Big Ten, ended its season 26-8.

Wisconsin, which finished the season by winning its last 11 matches, got 12 kills from Jade Demps, who hit .346 after having three errors in 26 attacks. She had nine digs and an ace. Rettke overcame a slow start and finished with 11 kills — four in the fifth set — hit .290, and had 13 blocks, three in the first five points in the fifth set when Wisconsin bolted to a 7-0 lead.

Grace Loberg had 10 kills as she also overcame a slow start and added four digs and three blocks. Devyn Robinson had six kills and although she hit .000 had a dig and 10 blocks. Julia Orzol had five kills and hit negative, but had an ace, 12 digs, and six blocks. Sydney Hilley had two kills, 51 assists, 13 digs, and five blocks. Her team hit .183.

Libero Lauren Barnes had 31 digs and seven assists. Giorgia Civita had nine digs, an ace, and an assist, and Izzy Ashburn had four aces.

Nebraska had won six in a row since it lost to Wisconsin for the second time in the regular season. The Huskers hit .141. Madi Kubik led with 19 kills but hit .106, and added two assists, 14 digs, and two blocks. She appeared to sail match point out of bounds to give Wisconsin a 15-11 win, but coach John Cook challenged that there was a tip. He won, but Rettke vehemently denied the touch. After a tremendous rally by both teams on the next point, Rettke left no doubt.

In the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin swept Colgate, FGCU, 13th-seeded UCLA, and 12th-seeded Minnesota, also of the Big Ten, before knocking out top-seeded and previously unbeaten Louisville on Thursday in the semifinals.

Nebraska had won five titles in nine previous finals appearances. Kayla Caffey had 15 kills for the Huskers with seven error in 30 attacks, a dig, and four blocks. At one point early in the third set she had 13 kills with four errors in 21 swings. Lindsay Krause had 12 kills, six digs, and five blocks. Ally Batenhorst had 11 kills and two blocks, and Lauren Stivrins had 10 kills, two digs, and five blocks. 

Nicklin Hames had 56 assists, an ace 23 digs, and a blocks. Keonilei Akana had an ace and 24 digs, and Lexi Rodriguez had 13 digs and four assists.

Wisconsin’s Julia Orzol goes all out in the first of the 2021 NCAA title match against Nebraska/Michael Gomez photo

Nebraska advanced in the NCAA Tournament with sweeps of Campbell, Florida State, and Illinois, and then upset No. 2 Texas on its home floor in four-sets in the regional final. The Huskers beat third-seeded Pitt on Thursday in the national semifinals.

This season, Wisconsin and Nebraska played twice. Wisconsin swept at Nebraska 26-24, 25-19, 25-23 on October 27. Then the Badgers won in four on November 26 at home, 14-25, 25-23, 26-24, 25-18.

Nebraska is one of the 11 schools to have won an NCAA title. The Huskers won in 1995 under Terry Pettit, and in 2000, 2006, 2015, and 2017 under John Cook. Stanford has nine titles; Penn State seven; Nebraska five; UCLA four; Hawai’i, Long Beach State, and USC three each; Pacific and Texas two each; and Kentucky and Washington one each.

This was the second time the programs met in the season’s last match.

Nebraska beat Wisconsin in the 2000 NCAA final, Cook’s first year as the head coach of the Huskers. He previously was the head coach at Wisconsin for seven years before taking over at Nebraska, which went 34-0 that season. The 2021 championship marked was his 100th NCAA tourney match. 

This story will be updated with quotes.

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