Wisconsin won the 2021 NCAA Volleyball Championship on Saturday, crowning the sport a new champion for the second time this calendar year.
Kentucky claimed the national title in April when the fall 2020 season was shifted to spring 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Wildcats’ reign atop the sport lasted just under eight months as the season returned to its normal place in the fall.
The Badgers’ road to their first championship was not an easy one. They survived previously undefeated Louisville in the semifinals and overcame a 1-0 deficit by beating Nebraska in a five-set thriller in front of an NCAA championship record of 18,755 spectators at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Our analysts provide an overview of the final four and the state of the sport, as well as a brief look at the 2022 season.
What was the biggest key to Wisconsin winning?
Mechelen Voepel: The Badgers defense had the upper hand in both the semi-finals and overall wins. Coach Kelly Sheffield said Wisconsin couldn’t have stopped either game without hitting such a high level defensively.
Missy Whittemore: This match was so incredibly close and could have gone absolutely either way. The defense on both sides of the net was the best I’ve ever seen in a game. The Wisconsin block certainly gave the Badgers an advantage, but it was the lead they jumped to in the fifth set that did it. Nebraska’s rally to close that gap was one of the most impressive runs I’ve ever seen, but Wisconsin was able to hold on in the end.
Paul Sunderland: I picked a final in Wisconsin-Nebraska and the decisive moment could very well have come in the second set. The Cornhuskers had four set points and were unable to close them. They served two balls into the net, taking a lot of pressure off the Badgers. That’s what the game was about. I always thought Wisconsin was the slightly better team, so the longer the game went on, the better for them.
Jen Hoffman: Wisconsin’s record defense in the championship game was too much for Nebraska to handle.
Wisconsin equalizes with one set apiece after Dana Rettke hits the net with two big blocks.
What was your highlight of the tournament?
feeler: The second set of the championship game was such a compelling volleyball; it was as if everything was at stake. Nebraska tried to grab an almost insurmountable 2-0 lead while Wisconsin scrambled and clawed to stay out of that huge hole. Dana Rettke taking the final three points of that 31-29 Badgers win was a case of the National Player of the Year coming through in the biggest game of her career.
Whittemore: The highlight for me was being asked to work the semi-finals and finals. This was one of the most exciting championships I’ve experienced in a long time. I really felt like the luckiest person in the world to be a part of those competitions and watch all the great athletes from Pittsburgh, Louisville, Nebraska and Wisconsin put everything they had on the floor competing for a national title.
Salima Rockwell: The highlight of the tournament was fitting, the fantastic final. While two of the best programs in the country competed on the national podium, we were all proud to call volleyball our sport. And while the defense is winning championships, Wisconsin proved that two lines of defense are even better than one: 24 team blocks and 31 Lauren Barnes digs.
Sunderland: Other than the consistently highest level of play I’ve seen in many years, thanks in large part to so many super seniors, it was the record 18,755 spectators for the final. What will the crowd be like in Omaha next year?
Hoffman: The highlight of the tournament was seeing the real success of Louisville. Granted, Louisville is my alma mater, but while the Cardinals didn’t finish their undefeated season, Wisconsin definitely had to work for its championship.
While the ACC did not have a team in the championship, what is the status of the conference?
feeler: It’s never been this good. Louisville and Pitt are really in the National Championship category, and will be as long as Dani Busboom Kelly and Dan Fisher run those programs. They have both accomplished so much, so quickly. And the success of those two teams will continue to inspire the rest of the competition.
Whittemore: The ACC is in fantastic condition now and in the future. With six teams — Louisville, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Miami, Florida State and North Carolina — entering this year’s tournament, it has proven that they are not only at the top, but are also growing to be some of the strongest. conferences in the world. country.
rockwell: The collective success of the ACC is not only good for the conference, but also for the sport. Equality across the country will only improve as recruits find it increasingly difficult to decide where to go to college with so many legitimately threatening programs in the ACC and elsewhere.
Sunderland: The ACC proved that it was the second best conference in the country and is on a very solid track. Pitt, Louisville and Georgia Tech will lose a lot of talent, but Miami is well on its way, as is the state of Florida.
Hoffman: The conference will only improve thanks to Louisville and Pittsburgh. The ACC can certainly continue to have teams compete for national championships with the right group of athletes and good planning.
Wisconsin reaches its fourth national championship after a five-set thriller against #1-seeded Louisville.
How good was it to see the tournament back in its normal place in December?
feeler: I loved it. The volleyball final four just feels like a natural part of the holiday season. We all have so many fond memories of this time of year with the great NCAA tournament games and players we’ve seen. I was driving to the championship game and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” came on the radio and I thought, “Yeah! This feels so familiar.” For volleyball players, by the way, the “you” in that issue is the national championship trophy.
Whittemore: To see the record-breaking crowd in the stands in Columbus this year was nothing short of amazing. I was so happy for them to experience what it really feels like to be on the biggest volleyball stage.
rockwell: For the athletes who played in both the fall and spring, it was nice to see the season end on time (knowing that many of these ladies were long overdue for a much-needed rest). Not to mention there’s something magical about seeing the confetti fall in December with the holidays just around the corner.
Hoffman: Though it coincided with college football bowling games, the tournament’s return to winter brought excitement and a sense of normalcy.
Which outgoing senior/super senior will you miss the most?
feeler: Dana Rettke from Wisconsin. She just comes across as a very smart young woman with an interesting personality and a good sense of humor, and she’s clearly a great teammate. She is so much fun to watch playing on the net. Hopefully we’ll see her on the US national team.
Whittemore: It’s so hard to choose because there are so many great players out there, but Lauren Barnes has been so much fun to watch over the years and illustrates what it means to play with courage and heart.
rockwell: All the super seniors contributed to one of the most competitive seasons ever, but most of all, I’m going to miss Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins. Her offense has become iconic over the past five seasons. And to be honest, as an announcer, I’m also going to miss saying, “The Stivrins slide!”
Hoffman: It’s remarkable to see Anna Stevenson up close as she does. Her amazing blocking talents are going to miss me at college level.
What is your far too early prediction for 2022?
feeler: With the final four in Omaha back and the fantastic freshmen we saw from Nebraska this season, look for that sixth NCAA title for the Huskers in 2022.
Whittemore: With so many super seniors going on and depleting their fitness, I think the field will open wide again, but for different reasons. My only prediction is that it will be another wild season with unpredictable results!
rockwell: I predict that the transfer portal will massively change the outlook for next season, and there will also be a first-time champion in 2022.
Sunderland: Next year’s favorites have to be Texas, Nebraska and, yes, Wisconsin, even though the Badgers are losing so much veteran talent. See if Stanford is there too. The wildcard: who is exercising their extra year during the COVID-19 pandemic and who is using the transfer portal?