Women's Volleyball Final Four Preview

There were some surprises along the way, but it's an impressive field that has gathered this week in Omaha (Neb.) for the 2006 Women's Volleyball Final Four. The top four teams in the final regular season AVCA rankings are the same four fighting Thursday in the national semifinals: #1 Nebraska vs. #4 UCLA and #2 Stanford vs. #3 Washington. Inside we profile these powers and preview the match-ups.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (31-1, 19-1 Big 12)

Tournament History:  2 NCAA Titles (2000, 1995); 10 Final Four appearances; 25 NCAA Tournament berths

How They Got Here:  Automatic Bid, Big 12 Champions

Who They Beat to Reach Omaha:  American (3-1); Northern Iowa (3-0); San Diego (3-0); Minnesota (3-2)

Main Players:  Nebraska plays a power game, plain and simple, and their offense is designed to overwhelm and intimidate the opponent.  Leading the nation in kills per game, the Cornhuskers are led by junior Sarah Pavan and sophomore Jordan Larson, and the duo do a fine job of putting the ball away at the pins to the tune of 9.28 kills per game.  Pavan is a slender 6'5", but she can pound the ball with the best of the them.  Thanks to her long frame, she can also create incredible angles that are difficult to defend against, which makes her a threat in all six rotations.  Larson is an all-around player who does it all for her team – up at the net, in the back row and behind the service line.  Tracy Stalls is a middle that doesn't get a lot of press because of her two star teammates, but she's a player that just gets the job done, hitting .405 while averaging 2.65 kills and 1.41 blocks per game.

X-Factor:  Dani Busboom directed the Husker offense into the national championship game last year, but prior to the 2006 season, head coach John Cook asked her to switch to the libero position to allow redshirt freshman Rachel Holloway to run the show.  Not only did Busboom agree to the change, but she also embraced her new role on the team with a smile on her face.  Her athleticism and quick reaction have allowed to her to become a top-notch defender, picking up 4.95 digs per game.  Against Minnesota in the Elite Eight, Nebraska found itself down two games due to lackluster defense.  However, after the 10-minute intermission, the Cornhuskers picked up their intensity in the back and demolished the Golden Gophers, thanks in large part to Busboom's great digs.

Did You Know:  Nebraska leads all NCAA institutions in the number of women's volleyball All-American athletes, with 26 Cornhuskers earning 53 AVCA All-American certificates.

UCLA Bruins (33-3, 15-3 Pac-10)

Tournament History:  3 NCAA Titles (1991, 1990, 1984); 11 Final Four appearances; 25 NCAA Tournament berths

How They Got Here:  At-Large Berth, Tied for 2nd Place in Pac-10

Who They Beat to Reach Omaha:  UAB (3-0); Utah (3-0); Oklahoma (3-0); Hawaii (3-0)

Main Players:  With UCLA, it all begins with senior middle blocker Nana Meriwether.  Although she is just 6'1", the Potomac (Md.) native has established herself as the best net defender in the country and one of the most efficient and explosive attackers in the game today.  Her ability to hit over the block makes her a dangerous weapon whenever she is up front, and her tremendous lateral quickness allows her to close the gaps in the Bruin block in an instant, putting up an impenetrable wall for the opponents.  Setter Nellie Spicer has run the UCLA offense since day one of her collegiate career, and with each match, she just gets better and better.  Whenever the ball leaves her hands, whether she's on the run or standing still, the ball gets to the hitter with minimal spin, and she can turn any pass into a hittable set.  The real key to success for UCLA this year has been the offensive balance between the middles and outsides, and Spicer is largely responsible for the distribution.  She's only a sophomore, but Spicer is well on her way to becoming one of the best playmakers in Bruin history.

X-Factor:  Kaitlin Sather has been an on-and-off again starter for UCLA, battling the likes of Katie Carter, Ali Daley, Becky Mehring, and Colby Lyman for a position on the outside.  However, when Lyman started as the libero eight matches ago against USC, that opened things up for Sather on the right side, and she has been producing ever since, hammering down 3.31 kills per game since the 3-0 victory over the Trojans.

Did You Know:  Senior middle blocker Nana Meriwether is on pace to become the first player in history to lead the country in both hitting percentage and blocking.  Currently, she is attacking at a .458 clip while averaging 1.96 blocks per game.  Stanford's Foluke Akinradewo is currently hitting .443, while Utah's Emily Toone is blocking 1.93 attacks per game.

Nebraska vs. UCLA - The Skinny:  Nebraska will definitely rely on its two guns to power its way to victory, but if the UCLA defense can stymie Sarah Pavan and Jordan Larson, other players like Tracy Stalls and Dani Mancuso will need to step up.  Similarly, the Bruin back row will need to pass nails in order for Nellie Spicer to set Nana Meriwether as many times as she can, though Katie Carter and Ali Daley will also need to produce kills at the antennas to keep the defense honest.  The second middle blocker for both teams, Kori Cooper for the Cornhuskers and Rachell Johnson for the Bruins, could be key for both offensive and defensive reasons.  In the end, it will be a classic battle between the Nebraska superstars and the balance of the Bruin bombers.

Stanford Cardinal (29-3, 16-2 Pac-10)

Tournament History:  6 NCAA Titles (2004, 2001, 1997, 1996, 1994, 1992); 16 Final Four appearances; 26 NCAA Tournament berths

How They Got Here:  Automatic Bid, Pac-10 Champions

Who They Beat to Reach Omaha:  Sacramento State (3-0); Missouri (3-2); California (3-0); Texas (3-1)

Main Players:  Stanford has been led all year long by its trio of offensive weapons in middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo and outside hitters Cynthia Barboza and Kristin Richards, as the three account for over 66% of the kills for head coach John Dunning.  Akinradewo, in particular, has proven to be unstoppable during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 4.40 kills per game at a blistering .475 clip.  And of course, Barboza earned MVP honors after producing 18 kills, 11 digs, seven blocks, and four aces.  Running the Cardinal offense is the underappreciated Bryn Kehoe, who didn't even get a sniff at regional all-tournament honors despite leading her team to victory.  Kehoe is averaging 13.28 assists per game while guiding the Cardinal to a .291 hitting percentage, #3 in the country.

X-Factor:  Erin Waller was stationed in the middle all throughout high school, but upon her arrival at Stanford she transitioned to the outside.  She has exploded during her sophomore campaign and has become a reliable outlet on the right side for Bryn Kehoe.  Against UCLA late in the season sans Foluke Akinradewo, Waller helped lead Stanford to victory in four games thanks to her huge 13 kills and six blocks.  In the Elite Eight, Stanford faced a hostile home crowd who was rooting hard for Texas.  Down 27-29 in the second game, Kehoe had the confidence to go to Waller on two consecutive plays, and the surging sophomore delivered, scoring two points to knot it up at 29-29.  Waller ended up with 11 kills and four blocks against the Longhorns.

Did You Know:  Stanford has the most NCAA Final Four All-Tournament selections with 35, with UCLA coming in second with 18.  Former outside hitter Kristin Folkl leads the way with four nods.

Washington Huskies (29-4, 15-3 Pac-10)

Tournament History:  1 NCAA Title (2005); 3 Final Four appearances; 11 NCAA Tournament berths

How They Got Here:  At-Large Berth, Tied for 2nd in the Pac-10

Who They Beat to Reach Omaha:  Colorado State (3-1); Colorado (3-1); Ohio State (3-0); Penn State (3-1)

Main Players:  Christal Morrison may have voted the 2006 Pac-10 Player of the Year award, but many wondered if the honor went to the wrong Husky, as setter Courtney Thompson is the heart and soul of the team.  Head coach Jim McLaughlin readily admits the 5'8" playmaker doesn't have the physical attributes a coach usually looks for in a setter, but her determination and leadership distanced her from her peers and is what has made her into one of the top players in NCAA history.  Heading into Thursday's match-up with Stanford, Thompson has accumulated 6,531 assists and is only 119 away from tying the NCAA record for career assists.  Morrison, who was selected to her third straight All Pac-10 Team in addition to be being crowned Player of the Year, is one of the most complete players in the country.  She isn't the hardest hitter in the country, but she knows how to put the ball away, and her defense up at the net and in the back are top-notch.  Stevie Mussie has elevated her play during the postseason, evidenced by her earning the Seattle Regional MVP honors after a magnificent performance against Penn State.  Against the Nittany Lions, she had 20 kills on a .375 hitting percentage, to go along with 13 digs and one block.

X-Factor:  Jessica Swarbrick was seldom used last season in Washington's run to its first-ever national championship, backing up Darla Myhre and Alesha Dessing in the middle.  With Myhre having graduated, Swarbrick has more than filled her vacated spot, averaging 2.69 kills and 1.49 blocks per game while hitting at a .399 clip.  She came out of nowhere to help the Huskies patrol the middle and earned All Pac-10 honors as a result of her stellar play.

Did You Know:  Washington is attempting to become just the sixth school to win back-to-back national championships, joining Hawaii (1982-1983), Pacific (1984-1985), UCLA (1990-1991), Stanford (1996-1997), and USC (2002-2003).

Stanford vs. Washington - The Skinny:  Washington is a team that is known for not making many errors out on the court and relies on defense and fundamentals to succeed, while Stanford has a high-octane offense that can score points in a variety of ways.  Christal Morrison has been battling the flu and was less than 100% in recent matches, but by all accounts, she will be healthy and ready to lead the Huskies to victory.  For Stanford, much of its success could hinder not on one of its big stars, but perhaps on the shoulders of Jessica Fishburn.  Texas targeted the sophomore libero on serve receive with much success, as she had difficulty delivering the ball to Bryn Kehoe on a consistent basis.  If Fishburn can handle the pressure of competing in a Final Four and not become a liability in the back, it will allow the Cardinal's offense to flourish and give them a better chance at advancing.  Both teams have shown that playing away from home comes at a cost (for Stanford, losses at BYU and Washington; for Washington, losses at Stanford, UCLA, and USC, in addition to having difficulties against Colorado and Colorado State in the NCAA Tournament).  To the Cardinal's credit, they were able to sweep the L.A. schools on the road, and it might be enough to give them the edge in Omaha.

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