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Defending Champs Join Three of Top Four Seeds in Final Four

Illinois is making its first appearance in the NCAA Final Four since 2011. This year’s semifinalists include Nebraska, which won in 2015 and 2017; and 2016 champion Stanford

Senior Mikaela Foecke had 16 kills and 13 digs and fellow senior Kenzie Maloney passed perfectly as defending national champion Nebraska swept Oregon on Saturday afternoon to advance to a program-record fourth consecutive Final Four.

The Cornhuskers will be joined in Minneapolis for next Thursday’s national semifinals by No. 1 Stanford, No. 3 Illinois and No. 4 BYU.

Nebraska swept Oregon for the second time this season, but it was not easy. The Ducks had the better part of the play for much of the first two sets. But Nebraska was stronger in the end game of each. Tied at 20-20 in Set 1, Oregon made four errors late before Foecke’s kill finished off Nebraska’s win. The ‘Huskers rallied from down 18-14 in Set 2 on kills from Foecke and Lexi Sun, then scored the final two points on kills from Foecke and Lauren Stivrins to take a two-set lead that proved devastating to Oregon’s chances. Another Foecke kill and an ace from Megan Miller helped Nebraska pull away early in the third set and the Cornhuskers never looked back, winning on Sun’s 10th kill of the match.

Nebraska will face Big Ten foe Illinois in one semifinal. The third-seeded Illini took out another school from the B1G, Wisconsin, in four sets in the rubber match between those schools. The pinpoint setting of Jordyn Poulter and 25 kills from outside Jacqueline Quade led the way for Illinois, which played before 4,000+ partisans at Huff Hall.

The Nebraska/Illinois showdown will be the third of the season between the two teams. Each won this season, in four, on the other’s home floor.

No. 1 Stanford, the 2016 national champions, reached the Final Four for the third consecutive season by defeating Penn State in four sets. The match featured two teams that each had won seven national championships, most in NCAA history.

Penn State, which was swept at Stanford earlier in the season, dominated play in the first set of Saturday’s Regional final, played before a crowd of 3,200 at Maples Pavilion. OHs Nia Reed and Taylor Leath combined for eight kills in the 25-18 blowout win. Stanford, playing with four juniors who started as freshmen on the 2016 title team, had the better of the play thereafter. Reigning AVCA National Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer led the way with 23 kills, 10 digs and three blocks and set the tone for the victory by contributing 10 kills in a tight second set, which the Cardinal won by rallying from down 22-21 late.

Stanford’s three other juniors also were big contributors. Setter Jenna Gray had 52 assists and five blocks, RS Audriana Fitzmorris produced 10 kills and three blocks and libero Morgan Hentz had a match-high 18 digs and zero errors in serve-receive. Senior Tami Alade also had her usual good game, with eight kills and six blocks; and sophomore OH Meghan McClure added a double-double.

Stanford’s semifinal opponent, Thursday at 7 p.m. EST, will be No. 4 BYU. Playing in front of 5,326 crazed fans at Smith Fieldhouse, the Cougars edged Texas in three close sets to make their first Final Four since finishing runner-up to Penn State in 2014. BYU head coach Heather Olmstead called the win a “total team effort.” Anybody watching the match knows how accurate an assessment that was. The Cougars got crisp hitting on the pins, led by Roni Jones-Perry’s 25 kills; huge blocking efforts in the middle, fantastic setting and leadership from Lyndie Haddock-Eppich and stunning defense from libero Mary Lake to take out the young Longhorns, who started four freshmen. One of the young players, OH Logan Eggleston, led the way for Texas with 15 kills.

Stanford’s only loss on the season came at BYU on Aug. 31.

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    December 9, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    Nebraska OH Jazz Sweet and Illinois OH Megan Cooney played on the same high school team. (Shawnee Heights in Tecumseh, Kansas)

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